By | January 4, 2024
Apple Vision Pro Mixed Reality Apple Glasses

In the coming weeks, perhaps even in the coming days, Apple is expected to begin selling perhaps its biggest venture since the iPhone, and arguably its most expensive: Apple Vision Pro mixed reality (MR) glasses. The glasses have the most advanced technology in terms of display, motion detection, sensors and computing capabilities, and accordingly come with a starting price tag of $3,499. Apple hopes that this will be the beginning of the next big revolution in the world of technology. But it is not the first, not even the second, that hopes to bring about such a revolution. Although this time the market is significantly different than it was in previous attempts, it is possible that the revolution will not come from Apple’s expensive and technology-heavy product, but rather from Meta’s light and cheap alternative.

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Apple Vision Pro Mixed Reality Apple Glasses

Apple Vision Pro mixed reality glasses

(Photo: Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg)

A little over a decade ago, in April 2013, Google unveiled what it hoped would be the big revolution in the tech world: Google Glass. Augmented reality (AR) glasses with a $1,500 price tag that the tech giant hoped would do for the world what the iPhone and smartphones did six years earlier. But the revolution did not happen. The technology wasn’t there yet, the glasses were limited and unimpressive – the display was small, the control interface was unfriendly and the features were uninspiring – and above all: the public reacted with absolute negativity. The few users were even given the derogatory nickname Glassholes. Two years later, Google stopped producing a consumer version. Industrial versions survived longer, but they too were scrapped in 2023.

Every few years, another tech company comes along that tries to revive the trend, and not very successfully. Microsoft’s HoloLens from 2016 didn’t really catch on, and while the company still markets the HoloLens 2, it’s a zombie product that hasn’t received a significant update since 2019. Snap also still makes and markets Spectacles, which was unveiled in 2016, but hasn’t introduced a new version of the product in almost three years, and the glasses did not become a mainstream product or a significant source of income.

In 2018, it was startup company Magic Leap’s turn to fail with glasses that didn’t live up to the high expectations the company had been building for about three years. Meta tried for the first time in 2021 with Ray-Ban Stories, in collaboration with the popular sunglasses brand, but received criticism mainly regarding the violation of privacy and according to the Wall Street Journal, as of the summer of 2023, it had sold only 300,000 copies.

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Meta developer conference Mark Zuckerberg 9.23 Second generation smart glasses in collaboration with Ray BanMeta developer conference Mark Zuckerberg 9.23 Second generation smart glasses in collaboration with Ray Ban

Mark Zuckerberg presents Meta’s smart glasses.

(Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

And like a broken clock, 2024 once again marks the year when tech companies will try to convince us that what we need most in life is to see the world through the lenses of digital and connected glasses. But this time it could end differently. And not just because the one leading the charge this time is Apple, perhaps the only company with consistent success in creating new markets almost out of nothing (Apple II, iPod, iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch).

In the two and a half years that have passed since Ray-Ban Stories, technology has taken a significant step forward in terms of hardware and software, but, perhaps more importantly, we have also changed significantly, and what was unthinkable and socially inappropriate in 2013 has become acceptable in a completely different way in 2024.

Whether they fail or succeed, Apple’s Vision Pro will probably be the most talked about product of the year. From a technical point of view, they are a fantastic demonstration of the leaps that have been made in the decade since Google Glass. Instead of a small screen with low resolution for one eye only, Apple’s displays provide impressive quality and sharpness that enable a viewing experience that does not fall below premium television screens. Instead of a touchpad next to the ear, Vision Pro comes with advanced sensors that detect hand and eye movements and respond to voice gestures, which means a natural and smooth control experience. Add to that processing capabilities similar to those of a good computer, an operating system that opens a portal to a large number of applications, and fast browsing capabilities that allow streaming quality content, and you have a product that implements everything that Google Glass could never be. If it weren’t for the scary price tag – at $3,499 it’s one of Apple’s three most expensive products – and their clunky and intimidating appearance, you could certainly bet on an impressive success.

Despite the price and appearance barriers, Vision Pro has a better chance of success than previous attempts. The technology that throws the entire field forward is only one of the factors. Apple’s ability to recruit developers and create an ecosystem of apps and content around its products is perhaps a more important factor.

Apple, which already realized in 2008 with the launch of the App Store that the real power of a platform lies in becoming a playground for millions of developers from all over the world, knows very well how to attract developers to its platforms. The developers themselves also have an interest in being on what could be the next big platform right from the start. If Vision Pro fails, it won’t happen because the users have nothing to do with it.

But while most of the attention is focused on Apple’s new product, there are those who believe that the breakthrough actually comes from other actors, those who present a vision that is perhaps less ambitious in terms of technology, but more practical in the aspect of everyday life. These products, called smart glasses, do not contain advanced sensors, not even a screen, but mostly cameras, microphones, storage space and the ability to take pictures and videos and share them (via a smartphone app) on social media. “We see incredible potential for smart glasses, especially if you can use voice and large language models (LLM, the technology behind applications like ChatGPT) as a user interface,” Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon told the Financial Times.

Snap’s glasses are considered pioneers in this category, but the one that’s gotten the most attention lately is the second-generation Ray-Ban Stories, which Meta launched last fall with a starting price tag of $299. The glasses are lighter and more comfortable than the previous generation, and in the same way they can be used for taking pictures and listening to music. Their main innovation is support for the Meta AI assistant, which can be activated with voice commands. Later this year, the glasses will also be able to understand the visual context of the question posed to their assistant (eg “What building is this?”, “How do you fix this faucet?”).

These functions were not possible when Google Glass was launched in 2013, not even when Meta launched the first generation of its glasses in 2021. But now, with the capabilities of generative artificial intelligence, these products can be controlled effortlessly and without the need for a physical user interface such as a touchpad or motion sensors.

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