It might not be immediately obvious, but augmented reality (AR) glasses are the kind of device that could “kill” the smartphone in the future. Once the technology allows AR device makers to release products that look more like traditional glasses, the AR glasses could extend the phone’s screen right onto the wearer’s face and potentially reduce actual smartphone screen time. Presumably, these AR glasses will still need a direct connection to a smartphone — at least, for the foreseeable future.
Several companies are already working on AR projects, as well as separate virtual reality (VR) glasses — or mixed reality wearables that combine both AR and VR content into a single device. We saw a few products at CES 2021 that will be ready for purchase later this year from various manufacturers. Apple is one of the most prominent AR supporters, despite not announcing any AR glasses. Samsung’s glasses also leaked recently. Facebook is desperate to compete in this landscape, and it has just unveiled “mind-reading” controllers that might one day operate AR devices. However, that nifty technology is still in the early stages of development.
Against that backdrop comes Niantic, developer of the popular AR game Pokemon Go, which just teased its own AR glasses.
Niantic CEO John Hanke posted the following image on Twitter, which shows what might be the company’s first AR hardware project. It’s unclear when the device will be launched, what’s it called, or how much it’ll cost. And while it’s not surprising to see Niantic interested in this particular type of product, there’s no real guarantee at this point that we’re looking at AR glasses.
Exciting to see the progress we’re making to enable new kinds of devices that leverage our platform… pic.twitter.com/yYglk4q89G
— John Hanke (@johnhanke) March 29, 2021
Pokemon Go is not the only AR game that Niantic has developed, although it’s easily the most popular one. Niantic will probably want to have its apps run on a variety of AR glasses going forward. But launching its own glasses will ensure that its products are supported right out of the gate.
“Exciting to see the progress we’re making to enable new kinds of devices that leverage our platform,” Hanke said in the tweet, without expounding on the kind of AR progress that the company is making. But Hanke makes no mention of AR. The company could always make some other type of smart glasses, which do not have actual AR capabilities. Such products exist, including audio glasses that can replace your headphones and glasses that pack cameras to record photos and video. Still, it’s augmented reality that makes the most sense for Niantic.
Whatever the case, Niantic seems to suggest the glasses above might be the kind of smart glasses we’d want. They appear to have a minimal design, featuring what seems to be traditional lenses and a relatively thin frame. The thicker part of the frame should pack some components, including what appears to be a grille for microphones.
Getting the hardware right isn’t enough without the software. Pokemon Go might be a great AR game on phones, but an AR device would need an operating system of its own to allow the user to connect it to smarter gadgets. And the AR product would have to work with iOS and Android, operating systems that Niantic doesn’t control.
But, again, Niantic does have its eyes set on AR. The company has recently advertised a job for “an inspirational leader” who will work on AR projects, including glasses:
We are on an ambitious mission to turn the world into an Augmented Reality canvas which games and other applications can paint on top of. This future is fully realized on AR Head Mounted Displays (HMDs). Niantic’s Engineering Team is seeking an inspirational leader to oversee the engineering direction to help build an AR operating system for HMDs and enable applications for millions of Niantic players.
There’s no telling when the unnamed glasses in the teaser above will be ready. A teaser obviously isn’t enough to give us an actual launch timeframe.