Augmented reality (AR) may only just be making waves in the consumer tech market, but it’s been in the public consciousness for decades. Much like virtual reality, AR has long been part of pop culture’s vision of a future led by tech; think movies like Terminator, Minority Report, or They Live. Even 30 years ago, Hollywood envisaged a future in which tech was a fundamental, omnipresent facet of life, rather than an addition. The overlaying of information onto a person’s vision is already possible - with the likes of Google Glass - and it’s one of the more inevitable examples of life imitating art.
So the technology is there, and society has been fascinated by augmented reality for decades, so why isn’t everyone wearing smart glasses? The failed experiment that was Google Glass (in its initial incarnation, at least) suggests that people aren’t quite ready to have computers strapped to their faces, and that AR’s introduction into mainstream society will have to be gradual. Mark Zuckerberg knows this. It’s the reason that, in 2016, Facebook presented its virtual reality glasses with the caveat that they would be available within a decade, rather than rushing to get a product to market this year.
At this year’s F8, Zuckerberg candidly admitted that he had initially seen smart glasses as the immediate future for AR. What he came to realize, he says, is that there needs to be an intermediate piece of tech to bring the public up to speed with what AR can offer, before companies can ask them to wear the tech. This realization actually goes a long way to explaining Facebook’s recent obsession with device cameraa, and it’s previously unexplained decision to attach a camera function to all of its offerings, however clunky the addition felt.
‘Now we all know where we want this to get eventually, right? We want glasses or eventually contact lenses that look and feel normal but that let us overlay all kinds of information and digital objects on top of the real world,’ Zuckerberg said at F8. ‘I used to think that glasses were going to be the first mainstream augmented reality platform. And that in maybe five or 10 years from now, we would get the form factor that we all want. But over the last couple of years, we’ve started to see primitive versions of each of [AR’s] use cases on our phones and cameras.’
And this is what the immediate future of AR looks like. Facebook’s pledge is to ‘Make the camera the first mainstream augmented reality device.’ The technology on display at F8 was genuinely impressive, with precise location, 3D effects, and object recognition all working together to create something straight out of a sci-fi movie. The ability to leave notes for friends in bars and restaurants, to see digital art otherwise invisible to the naked eye, and to render 3D spaces from 2D images will be impressive enough to see AR take up speedy adoption among the tech-savvy youth.
The route for monetization is clear. Zuckerberg hinted in his presentation that, in the future, users would be able to buy through the Facebook camera. The example used was of a wine bottle on a table, with the camera able to identify the wine’s vintage, offer reviews and, of course, eventually offer an opportunity to buy. Users will be able to identify products through their cameras and immediately be offered a link to buy, a shift that could have fundamental implications for the future of commerce and the further disconnect between purchasing and stores. As Zuckerberg himself concedes, it’ll be some time before we’re living in Facebook’s idea of tech utopia. With incremental steps and genuinely awe inspiring technology, though, Facebook is set to speed that process right up.