Augmented reality glasses are still in the developer stage, but the market is starting to consider the general public consumer.
First Real Steps into AR Glasses
Snap, the company behind Snapchat and Spectacles smart glasses frames, announced two moves into the augmented reality (AR) market—the acquisition of display provider WaveOptics, and a developer-targeted smart glasses devices leveraging WaveOptics displays. Snap has been active in the AR market for years in the form of AR filters for Snapchat, but this is the first step into display-enabled glasses. Current and previous Spectacles glasses products do not include displays and so have no visual capabilities, used instead for content capture only.
WaveOptics is UK-based a waveguide manufacturer, a common technology for passthrough displays. The company had raised US$65 million before the acquisition. The developer Spectacles will use WaveOptics waveguides for a 26-degree field of view display system, 2000 nits of brightness, 15 millisecond motion to photon latency, 6-degrees of freedom tracking, a Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 chipset, and 30 minutes of charge in a 134-gram package. Integration with Snap’s Lens Studio desktop content creation environment is included. The glasses will not be an as-is retail product, instead limited just to a selection of developers to assist in AR content creation.
Another Consumer Hardware Piece Falls into Place
Although these Snap glasses are not technically a consumer product yet, it outlines a clear path for the company and is indicative of an eventual full release product. Snap’s move could seem aggressive, but in actuality the acquisition is reactive. Google’s acquisition of North, Apple’s acquisition of Akonia, and Facebook’s in-house waveguide activity, along with associated support through the value chain from these companies and other competitors, has been ongoing for the past five years. It’s worth noting that all of this activity has not yet brought a consumer glasses product to market yet, so the race is still on for the first true mass market consumer AR glasses. Assuming a retail release in 2022, a retail AR Spectacles product will likely see competition from at least Facebook, if not the others, based on latest rumors and expectations.
All things considered, keeping these new Snap glasses a developer product is a smart move; the specifications are a bit lacking (more on that in the next section), and there’s a great deal of work to be done around content creation and ecosystem buildout. Snap is not a newcomer to AR content, but that activity has not been seen on the head mounted display (HMD)/smart glasses side. Giving developers time to experiment will not only allow Snap to research and invest in the most promising content pathways, but also will act as a marketing period during this experimentation. The wider Snapchat platform is the perfect platform to get eyes on AR content—first on smartphones as an example, then on glasses. AR advertising revenue potential is substantial—ABI Research predicts nearly US$22 billion in AR advertising revenues in 2026.
Specs Aren't Everything, but They are Something
As the AR market has matured, the specifications race has died down a bit—the time where field of view, resolution, brightness, battery life, and processing power were primary selling points is over. These features are all still important in some forms, but the significance overall became less and less important in enterprise. Now, as the consumer comes into play, these specs will again become product sellers. Snap’s developer Spectacles fall short on many of these, although it’s fair to highlight again these are not a retail product, so specifications are not necessarily indicative of a final product. However, understanding the rate of growth around AR components and hardware, we can surmise what a Snap consumer retail AR product would look like.
Field of view (FoV) has always been most important for immersive content: the higher the immersion desired, the wider the field of view needed. That’s why VR headsets have pushed much more strongly for field of view than AR, with common FoVs 3-4 times that of AR. Enterprise valuable use cases have not required wide field of view, but there is a minimum field of view that is required for user experience to not be negatively impacted, whether consumer or enterprise. Anecdotally, this is around 25-30 degrees, which would put the developer Spectacles right on the edge of usability. Target use case will still dictate what exactly is required in terms of hardware specs and field of view, but consumers will on average require wider field of view than 26-degrees. WaveOptics is capable of wider field of view displays, with listings up to 60-degrees, so it’s fair to assume a sizeable FoV increase for a next generation product.
The Snap product is also Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 based rather than XR2, so it hits the market one silicon generation behind. XR2 most notably doubles CPU and GPU performance compared to XR1. Other benefits include higher resolution support, 5G support, and greater total camera support. 5G support will prove to be a much more impactful feature over the next few years as AR becomes more ubiquitous and enabling technologies, such as edge compute, leverage the connectivity. Today, parity with smartphones is a fair enough goal, which means 5G needs to be available in the next 1-2 years at scale.
Related to processing power, battery life is cited at 30 minutes for the new Spectacles. This is objectively not enough and will even be a hindrance for the small developer audience that will use it. 30 minutes is too short for most use cases expected; navigation, heads up notifications, content consumption, etc., will all drain the battery far too quickly for any sort of regular usage. Again, the Snap product can get a pass as a developer only solution, but any next generation product of similar design is starting from behind. What elements are most responsible for this battery life is up for debate, but there’s efficiency to be created in silicon and waveguide first.
As reference for some of these specifications, waveguide competitor DigiLens recently launched a reference design headset with 50-degree field of view and XR2. HoloLens 2 is around 50-degrees field of view, while some VR headsets are over 100-degrees. HoloLens 2 battery life is around 2.5 hours.
All of this is to say that while this Spectacles version is only a developer product, and specifications aren’t the be all end all for AR products, the market is shifting to where these specs are increasingly important. User experience has always been important, though somewhat forgotten in the enterprise. For the consumer space, glasses will have to meet some minimum requirements in battery life, resolution, brightness, field of view, and processing power to ensure a sufficient UX level to actually sell product. Look out for more M&A around all of these component areas, but display especially.