Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg predicted in 2017 that televisions and phones would be replaced by holographic glasses. Apple CEO Tim Cook called AR “a big idea, like the smartphone.” Microsoft envisioned people watching the Super Bowl in its HoloLens headset. Google launched its ambitious Glass platform as a potential successor to phones, then helped propel the AR startup Magic Leap toward billions of dollars in investments. More recently, telecoms have partnered with AR companies like the Chinese startup Nreal, hoping high-bandwidth holograms will create a demand for 5G networks.
These companies’ products—as well as those of other major players, including Snap, Vuzix, and Niantic—often look very different. But most of them promise a uniquely powerful combination of three features.
- Their hardware is wearable, hands-free, and potentially always on—you don’t have to grab a device and put it away when you’re done using it
- Their images and audio can blend with or compensate for normal sensory perception of the world, rather than being confined to a discrete, self-contained screen
- Their sensors and software can collect and analyze huge amounts of information about their surroundings—through geolocation and depth sensing, computer vision programs, or intimate biometric technology like eye-tracking cameras
Over the past decade, nobody has managed to merge these capabilities into a mainstream consumer device. Most glasses are bulky, and the images they produce are shaky, transparent, or cut off by a limited field of view. Nobody has developed a surefire way to interact with them either, despite experiments with voice controls, finger tracking, and handheld hardware.
Despite this, we’ve gotten hints of the medium’s power and challenges—and even skeptics of the tech should pay attention to them.
In 2016, for instance, millions of people fell in love with the phone-based AR game Pokémon Go. When players logged on to catch virtual monsters, many discovered parts of their neighborhoods they’d never thought to visit. But they also found a world built on data that placed more gyms and PokéStops in white and affluent neighborhoods. They forged in-person connections by sharing virtual experiences, but those connections could also allow for real-world harassment.
The effects went beyond people who played the game. The owners of some homes near Pokémon Go gyms experienced a sudden influx of trespassers, leading a few to sue its developer Niantic and secure tweaks to the game’s design. Public memorials like the US Holocaust Museum asked players to respect the space by not chasing virtual monsters into it. Even this early foray into augmented reality exported some of the internet’s biggest flaws—like its ability to collapse context and overwhelm individuals with its sheer scale—into physical space.
Writer and researcher Erica Neely says that laws and social norms aren’t prepared for how AR could affect physical space. “I think we’re kind of frantically running behind the technology,” she says. In 2019, Neely wrote about the issues that Pokémon Go had exposed around augmented locations. Those issues mostly haven’t been settled, she says. And dedicated AR hardware will only intensify them.
Smartphone cameras—along with digital touchup apps like FaceTune and sophisticated image searches like Snap Scan and Google Lens—have already complicated our relationships with the offline world. But AR glasses could add an ease and ubiquity that our phones can’t manage. “A phone-based app you have to actually go to,” says Neely. “You are making a conscious choice to engage with it.” Glasses remove even the light friction of unlocking your screen and deliberately looking through a camera lens.