Why VR/AR Gets Farther Away as It Comes Into Focus

When Neal Stephenson wrote “Snow Crash” in 1992, he set it in the future – at a time where more than a hundred million people used AR/VR glasses regularly. When do you think it was? The mid-2010s.

Modern efforts to build extended reality (XR) devices—i.e., dedicated virtual reality (VR), dedicated augmented reality (AR), hybrid mixed reality (MR)—began more than a decade ago. Magic Leap was founded in 2010, the same year Microsoft started development on its HoloLens platform, which released its first model in 2016, with the second coming in 2019. The first Google Glass prototype was in 2011, with the first Explorer Edition coming in 2013 and the Enterprise Edition 2 launching as recently as 2019; a reconceived model was field-tested in 2022. Google’s Cardboard VR platform and software development kit (SDK) came in 2014, with the Daydream VR platform coming two years later. Sony PlayStation began development of its VR platform in 2011, which then debuted in 2016. Oculus was founded in 2012, with Facebook acquiring the company in 2014, and the Oculus Rift coming to market in 2016, followed by another four models through 2022. In 2014, Snap acquired Vergence Labs, an AR glasses start-up that had been founded in 2011, and served as the foundation for the Snap Spectacles, which premiered in 2016, and have seen three updates. Despite the failure of the Fire Phone, a 3D-enabled smartphone that had four front-facing cameras at a time where the smartphones had one or at most two, Amazon began development of its Alexa-based AR glasses sometime in 2016 or 2017. The first Echo Frames was released in 2019, with the second edition coming two years later.

As we observe the state of XR in 2023, it’s fair to say the technology has proved harder than many of the best-informed and most financially endowed companies expected. When it unveiled Google Glass, Google suggested that annual sales could reach the tens of millions by 2015, with the goal of appealing to the nearly 80% of people who wear glasses daily. Though Google continues to build AR devices, Glass was an infamous flop, with sales in the tens of thousands (the company’s 2022 AR device no longer uses the Glass brand). Throughout 2015 and 2016, Mark Zuckerberg repeated his belief that within a decade, “normal-looking” AR glasses might be a part of daily life, replacing the need to bring out a smartphone to take a call, share a photo, or browse the web, while a bigscreen TV would be transformed into a $1 AR app. Now it looks like Facebook won’t launch a dedicated AR headset by 2025—let alone an edition that hundreds of millions might want.

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