“We are building AR glasses.” When Facebook’s vice president of augmented and virtual reality Andrew Bosworth officially announced the company’s plans to build a consumer augmented reality (AR) device during its Oculus Connect developer conference in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, he spilled one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets. Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have long been hinting at plans for such a device, and launched phone-based AR as a way to get there.
Facebook executives are still keeping mum on key details, including their targeted go-to-market date. Bosworth told Variety during an interview on Wednesday that it may take a few more years, and the company wasn’t going to rush to market. “We (will) ship it as early as we can,” Bosworth said. “We’re focused on delivering an experience that we’re really going to learn something from.”
Facebook’s strategy is notably different from the way competitors like Magic Leap and Microsoft have approached AR hardware. Both companies have seeded the market with premium headsets, priced between $2,300 and $3,500, and squarely targeted toward developers and enterprise customers. Both companies have also been open about their ambitions to eventually produce consumer AR devices, and their desire to learn from enterprise customers and early adopters to bring those future devices to market.
Facebook tends to take that same approach in the software space as well, admitted Bosworth. “Our process is always: Get things out as soon as you can, and try to learn from that,” he said. “But you have to believe the thing that you’re learning is valid. If what I want to test is how people are using augmented reality as they go about their lives, then the test of HoloLens isn’t a great one for me.”
“It doesn’t look like the thing that I want to wear on my face as I go about my day,” he continued. “That means I never actually exposed that device to the scenarios that I would expose it to in real life.”
Bosworth said consumers may not wear Facebook’s future augmented reality glasses all the time either, adding: “But they don’t feel like it would be odd to wear it all the time.”
Facebook’s decision to iterate on its AR hardware in its labs until the device is consumer-ready is also very different from the way the company has approached virtual reality (VR). Oculus, then still operating as an independent startup, famously debuted an anything-but-polished developer version of its first VR headset on Kickstarter.
Bosworth said Oculus also benefited from easy access to consumer-grade technology, which allowed it to make these first devices relatively inexpensive. “They had this tremendous tailwind, which was the mobile phone supply chain,” he said. Access to cheap displays, mass-produced for mobile phones, and reliance on proven optics, combined with a huge footprint of existing gaming PCs, helped Oculus to hit the ground running.
That’s very different from the technology needed to make AR work, he argued. “Augmented reality is pioneering all of these things from the ground up. The displays for augmented reality are completely novel.” Getting production to scale for new types of displays and related tech was another challenge, Bosworth added.
While Facebook has to invent a lot of technology for AR from scratch, it is also benefiting from its existing investments in VR, Bosworth said. “Machine perception, computer vision, the inputs, the sensing, the tracking, those are shared across both.”
We may still have to wait a few years for Facebook’s AR glasses, but the company is already priming the market with mobile VR. AR filters in Messenger and other Facebook products were key to getting developers trained to work with the medium, Bosworth said. “The creator suite that people are using to create effects for augmented reality, those are literally the tools that we hope people were going to use for these early generations of augmented reality beyond the phone.”
Bosworth also argued that AR glasses may not be replacing phones for some time to come. “It’s going to take time to get adopted. It’s a completely novel paradigm,” he said, likening AR glasses to the introduction of the first graphical user interfaces for computers in the late 70s. “It’s a really major shift in how people interact with machines,” he said. “I expect to live in a world where all these devices exist together, and hopefully work together.”