Meta might be the most recognizable firm developing AR and VR devices. Microsoft has HoloLens. Apple is also working on a project. But don’t try to ignore Google.
According to two people familiar with the project who asked anonymity to talk without the company’s permission, the search giant has lately began ramping up development on an AR headset, internally called Project Iris, that it intends to deploy in 2024. Google’s device, like Meta’s and Apple’s upcoming headsets, employs outward-facing cameras to integrate computer visuals with a video stream of the actual world, delivering a more immersive mixed reality experience than existing AR glasses like Snap and Magic Leap. Early prototypes at a San Francisco Bay Area facility resemble a pair of ski goggles and don’t require a tethered connection to an external power source.
Project Iris is a comeback to a hardware field in which Google has a rocky past. It all started with Google Glass’s splashy, ill-fated launch in 2012. Then, in 2019, a multi-year campaign to market virtual reality headgear gradually died away. Since then, Google has remained unusually quiet about its hardware ambitions in the sector, opting instead to focus on software capabilities like Lens, its visual search engine, and Google Maps’ augmented reality instructions. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg has put his company’s bet on augmented reality and virtual reality, recruiting hundreds of people and changing its name from Facebook to Meta. The term “metaverse” has become an unavoidable catchphrase. Apple is also working on its own mixed reality headgear, which might be released later this year.
Project Iris is a well classified Google secret, hidden in a facility with restricted keycard access and non-disclosure agreements. The headset’s core team numbers are around 300 individuals, with Google planning to add hundreds more. Clay Bavor, who answers directly to CEO Sundar Pichai and also runs Project Starline, an ultra-high-resolution video chat booth that was successfully tested last year, seems to be of the operation.
On a quarterly report in October, Pichai claimed that Google is “thinking through” augmented reality and that it will be a “major area of investment for us,” implying that the business has the funds to back ambitious ideas. It has great technical expertise, a strong Android software ecosystem, and appealing AR eyewear products like Google Lens. However, it’s uncertain if Google would invest as much as Meta, which now spends $10 billion per year on AR and VR. Thousands of people are working on Apple’s headgear and a more futuristic pair of AR glasses. Google appears to be playing catch-up unless it proves otherwise.