Set your calendars for April 2022.
That’s when futuristic, “augmented reality” glasses could replace your smartphone and become your new everyday computing device.
So says Michael Abrash, the chief scientist of Facebook-owned Oculus Research, which is hard at work on both virtual reality headsets and augmented reality glasses.
Abrash envisions glasses that look just like today’s regular glasses — lightweight and stylish — but with the power to enhance the wearer’s memory, provide instant translation of foreign languages and signs, mute distracting nearby conversations or sounds and even read a baby’s temperature with a glance.
In other words, super glasses.
These aren’t virtual reality glasses that enclose the wearer in a separate world. They super-impose virtual information into the real world, a concept called augmented reality.
Of course, major advances in materials science, optics and displays still need to be realised in order for these super glasses to be possible — and that could still take 10 or 20 more years, Abrash explained during at talk at Facebook’s annual developer conference on Wednesday.
“20 or 30 years from now, I predict that instead of carrying stylish smartphones everywhere, we’ll wear stylish glasses. Those glasses will offer VR, AR and everything in between and we’ll use them all day,” he said.
But the crucial milestone at which AR glasses become good enough to be a viable mainstream product, and a common sight on the street, might not be so far off.
In as little as five years, AR could have its “Macintosh moment” Abrash said on Wednesday, referring to the famous Apple computers released in 1984 which turned personal computers into a mass-market phenomenon.
“Despite all the attention focused on AR today it will be five years at best before we’re really at the start of the ramp to widespread, glasses-based augmented reality, before AR has its Macintosh moment,” he said.
“Even once we’re on that ramp it will take may years to fully realise AR’s potential, just as it took decades for human oriented computing to mature and reach billions of people,” he said.
Abrash is clearly trying to set expectations that the ultimate, sci-fi like AR glasses are not around the corner. But in declaring that the “Mac moment” could be just five years away, Facebook is setting the schedule for what many believe could be the next major computing platform shift.
The Mac was the first mainstream PC to feature the graphical user interface and mouse set-up that’s now the standard way we use computers.
There are already some AR glasses today, but they’re in the equivalent of the PC’s pre-Mac phase. Google Glass, one of the first high-profile attempts at computer glasses, went down with a loud thud because of a clunky appearance, poor performance and a backlash over privacy concerns.
Microsoft is working on Hololens, which do an impressive job overlaying holographic images onto the real world, but the bulky devices are hardly the kind of thing people will wear about town.
All of these early efforts are the necessary groundwork to get to the next phase and create glasses that, in the words of Abrash, provide “augmentation that enhances your vision and hearing seamlessly, that makes you smarter and more capable, that is light, comfortable, stylish, power efficient and socially acceptable enough to accompany you everywhere you go.”
There’s no shortage of ambitious, deep-pocketed tech companies, including Snap, Magic Leap, Google and Microsoft, racing to become the Macintosh of glasses.
Five years is the most optimistic timeline by Abrash’s reckoning. But with so much at stake, Facebook and Abrash can’t afford to let someone else get their first.