Walk into Snap’s offices and you might see some curious things. Butterflies flutter through the lobby. Zombies in the cafeteria. The entire solar system on the terrace.
Snap, which started as a Snapchat photo messaging app, pioneered augmented reality. But instead of peering through a smartphone app to view these effects, I saw them through what almost felt like regular glasses.
Snap’s latest “Spectacles” aren’t widely available, but the demo I had was promising. When I reached out, a butterfly seemed to land on it. I clicked a button on the frame and the glasses told me what I was looking at. Images were crisp and clear – although a major limitation is that the batteries only last 30 minutes.
Snap’s Spectacles are the latest in a long line of intriguing headset prototypes I’ve tried over the past decade. So far, none of them have become a hit. I first tried an early version of the Oculus virtual reality headset at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2014. It remains the most impressive demo of a new technology I’ve ever experienced. I felt like I had put my head in a video game. I wasn’t the only one. Mark Zuckerberg loved Oculus so much that he bought the company for $2 billion.
It’s been ten years since ‘virtual reality’ was re-entered into the lexicon, but the technology has largely failed to break through into the normal world. In 2016, Goldman Sachs predicted that nearly 100 million VR and AR headsets would be in use by 2020. The number is estimated today at nearly 10 million.
Although the founder of Facebook is more enamored with VR than ever, I have given up waiting for the rest of the world. There are several fun VR games, such as Rec Room and Beat Saber. Some colleagues swear by VR workout apps. But despite hardware improvements, I still struggle to find reasons to boot my Oculus.
Nevertheless, Silicon Valley is gearing up for another attempt to convince us that the future of computers is upon us. Apple, Facebook owner Meta and Google are working on glasses and headsets of all shapes and sizes. Snap’s Spectacles foreshadow several AR devices launching this year.
They all face the same impossible choices: better graphics mean heavier headsets and batteries that drain faster. Compromise on optics and the utility disappears.
What struck me with Snap’s demo was how comfortable the glasses are. They look pretty sci-fi, but aren’t nearly as bulky as other AR headsets, at less than a quarter the weight of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2.
Google recently demonstrated similar low-profile goggles that seemed to show near-instantaneous transcription and translation of a foreign language as it is spoken. “A bit like subtitles to the world,” the promotional video said. In contrast, Apple and Meta seem to be opting for the full-fat experience: high-resolution AR headsets that look more like ski goggles than goggles.
There’s an argument that someone’s first demo of VR or AR is just too good. The first time you turn your head in VR or see holograms in AR is unbelievable. Only with repeated viewings do you realize how cumbersome the hardware is. The next 12 months may determine whether that turns out to be just the growing pains of a new platform or the epitaph of technology.
Tim Bradshaw is the FT .’s global technology correspondent
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