Are Augmented Reality phones closer than we think?

The idea of a completely clear phone that you can look through and which projects data onto the world that you see through it’s lens is not completely sci-fi when you think about what we’ve seen already with products like Google Glass, and the upcoming Microsoft Hololens. Google Glass was not true augmented reality though, as it presented data to you in a screen to the side of your vision, and not presenting images blended into your normal field of view.

Oculus has been paving the way for the past few years with the development of their VR headset, recently being released in March this year (2016) after the company was bought by Facebook for a staggering $2bn. Clearly, there’s serious interest in the technology and application of VR. There’s been a number of different phone related VR headsets, like Samsung’s Gear VR developed by Oculus, the HTC Vive, and others. The upcoming launch of the Playstation VR headset set for October 13 could be the one that bring’s VR to the masses. At $399 (but requiring a PS4 console), riding on the Sony and Playstation brand this could bring VR into many households this holiday season.

A couple of stories recently caught my attention. Robert Scoble has recently been tweeting about an Apple patent for a completely transparent phone, a solid piece of glass, with the electronics tucked into a narrow strip a the bottom. The patent is from 2014,  but he makes some guesses in his longer post on Medium about where he thinks Apple are heading with this. Based on discussions with hardware and material suppliers he draws some conclusions about what he thinks Apple are planning. He also thinks a device using this technology might be coming much sooner than we think, as soon as September 2017. I won’t summarize everything he covers in his article, you can read it for yourself, but he does paint an interesting picture of the possibility of a tech giant like Apple making a serious move in the AR/VR space. Could Apple be about to bring this technology to everyday consumers, like they did for portable music players and the smartphone? Time will tell.

The second story from earlier this year is the $780m in funding raised by Magic Leap, a company developing AR related technology. Google is also behind $542m of this funding. What’s interesting about Magic Leap is that they’ve been largely off the radar, but have apparently developed a technique of realistically presenting images directly into the user’s field of view. They don’t yet have a beta product, and whatever they have in the works is being kept under wraps. Whatever they have, there’s definitely significant movement and growing interest in this space right now, it will be interesting to see where they’re going.

Will Facebook bring Virtual Reality to the mainstream?

I’ve been wondering for a while whether Virtual Reality is just one of the technologies that is technically amazing but only has niche use cases, and is probably doomed to never become mainstream. The fact that Facebook bought Oculus for $2bn has puzzled me for a while though. Is Zuckerberg planning a virtual reality interface for Facebook? That’s kind of weird and puzzling (I’ll come back to this thought in a minute).

There’s been a lot of movement in this space recently. Possibly the flashiest demos have been Microsoft’s video demos of their Hololens, but according to some sources this is still at least 5 years out before it becomes a real product. Sony’s Project Morpheus was renamed Playstation VR recently, promising to be released for the PS4 ‘some time soon’. Given the ever decreasing lifetimes for current gen consoles, this probably means a lot sooner than Microsoft’s plans, probably within a couple of years at most.

Oculus Rift has been in development for a long time, before recently getting bought by Facebook. Dev kits have been available for some time, and their site says coming Q1 2016. That’s pretty soon (within months at this point).

Now back to Facebook. Yesterday they announced and released a number of ‘360 videos’ that play from your Facebook stream in your browser. As the video plays you can drag it around to look in all directions as it’s playing. It’s pretty cool. However, the ultimate coolness is when you view the video in the Facebook app on your Android phone… the video moves with the gyroscope sensors in the phone. It’s incredible.. you have to see it to believe it, it’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen for a while. So are we now seeing where we’re heading with Virtual Reality and Facebook’s plans for the Oculus Rift? Maybe so. However, I’m not sure I want to wear a headset to browse my feed or even watch casual videos, but the gyroscopic 360 vision on your phone. Wow. Very cool. Let’s see some more, Facebook.