Could augmented reality begin where VR has failed?

Visit Snap’s offices and you might see some curious things. Butterflies flutter around the lobby. Corpse in the canteen. Complete solar system on the roof.

crackWhich started life as the photo-messaging app Snapchat, “has been a pioneer in”augmented realityBut instead of looking through a smartphone app to see these effects, I felt them like normal glasses.

Snap’s latest “specs” aren’t widely available, but the demo I saw showed promise. When I extended my hand, a butterfly appeared to land on it. I clicked a button on the frame and the glasses told me what I was seeing. Images were bright and clear – though a major limitation is the battery lasting only 30 minutes.

Snap’s Spectacles are the latest in a long line of interesting headset prototypes I’ve tried out over the past decade. So far, none of them have been a hit. I first tried an early version of the Oculus virtual reality headset at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2014. This is the most impressive demo of a new technology I’ve ever experienced. I felt like I had put my head inside a video game. I was not alone. Mark Zuckerberg liked Oculus so much that he bought the company for $2bn.

It’s been a decade since “virtual reality” re-entered the lexicon, but the technology has largely failed to break into the ordinary world. In 2016, Goldman Sachs predicted that there would be around 100 million VR and AR headsets in use by 2020. Today that number is estimated at close to 10 million.

While the founders of Facebook are more enamored with VR than ever, I’ve given up on waiting for the rest of the world. There are many fun VR games, such as Rec room And hit the saber, Some coworkers swear by VR workout apps. But despite improvements in hardware, I’m still struggling to find reasons to boot my Oculus.

Still, Silicon Valley is ready for yet another effort to convince us that the future of computing is in our faces. Apple, Facebook owner Meta and Google are working on glasses and headsets of all shapes and sizes. Snap’s Spectacles are the forerunner of several AR devices launching this year.

They all face the same impossible choices: Better graphics mean heavier headsets and batteries that drain quickly. Compromise on optics and usability disappears.

What impressed me with Snap’s demo was how comfortable its glasses are. They look very sci-fi, but are nowhere near as heavy as other AR headsets, which come in at less than a quarter of the weight of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2.

Google recently demonstrated similar unobtrusive specs that showed almost instant transcription of a foreign language and translation of a spoken language. According to the promotional video, “like subtitles for the world”. In contrast, Apple and Meta seem to opt for the full-fat experience: high-resolution AR headsets that look more like ski goggles than glasses.

There’s an argument that anyone’s first demo of VR or AR is just too good. The first time you turn your head in VR, or see a hologram in AR, it’s incredible. It is only when you watch it again and again that you realize how cumbersome the hardware is. The next 12 months may determine whether this is simply the growing pains of a new platform or a symbol of technology.

Tim Bradshaw is FT’s global technology correspondent

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