While the smartphone rules today's tech world as the primary computing device, the next big hardware platform is widely expected to be some version of augmented reality glasses.
The big picture: Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google are all pursuing this vision, and many pieces are starting to fall into place. But the holy grail of an affordable computer inside something not much bulkier than a standard pair of glasses is likely still a few years off.
How it works: Such glasses allow users to see what's in front of them, but with digital information overlaid, such as map directions, contact information and messages. Cameras and microphones capture input like video and sound, with speech likely to play a key role.
Who is involved: Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have all shown an interest and invested heavily in the underlying technologies. Analysts also expect phone makers like Samsung, and PC makers like Lenovo, to get in on the act.
Be smart: If you look closely, you can see some of the key underlying technologies already being developed and tested in plain sight.
- Facebook plans to debut smart glasses this year, in a more advanced twist on Snap’s spectacles that Facebook likely hopes will be consumers' stepping stone to far more sophisticated future products. The company's Oculus unit, meanwhile, focuses mostly on virtual, not augmented, reality, but the Oculus Quest 2 and other VR headsets can also deliver AR using cameras.
- Microsoft already sells Hololens, which packs the power of a Windows 10 computer into a headset, albeit one that is still too bulky and expensive to appeal to consumers. Microsoft has made it available to developers and some enterprise customers, and is also doing early work with the U.S. Army.
- Google Glass, the first device in this category that attracted mainstream attention, flopped as a consumer product, but a slightly updated version is still being sold to businesses.
- Apple been quietly making lots of moves, including reportedly putting executive Dan Riccio in charge of VR/AR efforts. Bloomberg and The Information report Apple is readying a VR headset to hit the market as soon as next year. The device could also use cameras to see into the real world, paving the way for the eventual release of true AR glasses.
The intrigue: Both Apple's AirPods and Apple Watch represent efforts toward miniaturizing technology and testing individual components, such as the spatial audio feature included with the latest AirPods Pro, that could be crucial to making advanced AR glasses work.
- Several companies hope to solve some of AR glasses' tough technical challenges by splitting the computing work among multiple devices. Qualcomm, among others, aims to offload some of the glasses' processing needs onto users' smartphones.
Yes, but: The technical hurdles are many, especially if the goal is really something as light and inconspicuous as eyeglasses. They include:
- Miniaturization of components like cameras, microphones and processors, which are tinier than ever but still add up to clunky frames when taken together.
- Battery life that lasts more than a couple hours between charges.
- Heat, which chips still give off when they're working hard — annoying for a phone but a real problem for a device that rests on your face.
- Display, with most AR glasses today having tunnel vision in terms of where imagery can be projected, as well as struggling to work well in bright sunlight.
- Cost, as all the tech adds up to a product that costs several thousand dollars.