- Facebook is betting that the future of technology is in augmented reality (AR) and wearable computing.
- AR promises to be huge in business — but there’s no guarantee it will catch on at home.
- Wearable tech has failed spectacularly in the past, from Google Glass to 3D TV.
Just because a company built a shiny new tech product doesn’t mean real people actually want to use it.
There’s arguably no better example than Google Glass — a headmounted computer from Google that was once hyped as the future of computing. That was before Google got slammed over privacy, its wearers were ridiculed and assaulted, and the product was quietly discontinued.
It’s a lesson that Facebook would do well to heed as it proclaims augmented reality is the next step in how we interact with computers and the world.
It has radical potential, to be sure — but it’s also easy to screw up.
Facebook wants to kill your screens
Tuesday was the first day of F8, Facebook’s annual conference for developers. And as part of his keynote, CEO Mark Zuckerberg lifted the lid on what the social network has planned for the next year and beyond.
The key launch was the Camera Effects platform, which lets developers build AR products that are accessible through your smartphone’s camera.
Further ahead, Zuckerberg envisions wearable AR glasses, that overlay the real world with digital content, replacing traditional TVs, smartphones, and numerous other physical objects with virtual versions.
The ambitious vision, Zuck acknowledged, is still years off, and the company didn’t formally announce an AR hardware product (though the CEO confirmed to Recode that Facebook is building “AR hardware”).
But there’s a huge, unanswered question hanging in the air: Will people actually want to use it?
Augmented reality is going to be huge
Let’s not kid ourselves: Augmented reality, in some form, is going to be revolutionary.
In November 2016, I tried out HoloLens, the augmented reality headset built by Microsoft, and it was wild. The tech was basic, but it was clear that as it matures, HoloLens and AR more generally will have near-endless potential professional uses, from 3D modelling to hands-free displays for surgeons, military applications, and much, much more.
But Mark Zuckerberg’s big bet — that this will filter down into the home — is more dubious.
Think back to Google Glass. Even today, it continues to be utilised in specialised industrial uses. But when it was released into the wild, it became a symbol of everything that was wrong in Silicon Valley. It was banned from venues over privacy concerns. Some wearers, unkindly nicknamed “glassholes,” even got assaulted.
There is, arguably with good reason, a pretty big stigma around wearable tech and ubiquitous head-mounted cameras that Facebook would need to overcome to make wearable AR a successful consumer product.
Glasses are just plain annoying
There’s also another problem: A lot of people don’t like wearing glasses.
They can be uncomfortable, they’re a pain to remember, and they break easily. Zuckerberg told USA Today that “we don’t need a physical TV. We can buy a $US1 app ‘TV’ and put it on the wall and watch it … It’s actually pretty amazing when you think about how much of the physical stuff we have doesn’t need to be physical.”
But companies have tried persuading people to wear special glasses to watch video before. It was 3D TV, and it was a total flop. Basically no-one bought them, and every major manufacturer has since discontinued their products. What was once heralded as the future of television came to naught.
Despite the best intentions of manufacturers, consumers just didn’t see the point.
Zuckerberg rightly acknowledges that augmented reality is currently nowhere near maturity. “I think everyone would basically agree that we do not have the science or technology today to build the AR glasses that we want,” he said, per Recode. “We may in five years, or seven years, or something like that. But we’re not likely to be able to deliver the experience that we want right now.”
Even when it is sufficiently advanced, it’s unclear if consumers will flock to it. Do you really want to have to put on glasses any time you want to watch a movie? And there’s real pleasure to be had in high-quality physical goods — like the chess sets that appeared in the F8 demo — that a digital object just can’t replicate.
There’s no question that augmented reality, in some form, is going to transform the way we live and work. But the claim that a decade from now, we’ll all be wearing magical smart glasses, is far less certain.
No matter how well you build it, there’s no guarantee they will come.
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