The Rise and Fall of Google’s VR/AR Initiatives

When Simon Greenwold coined the phrase “spatial computing” in 2003, futuristic AR, VR, and XR headsets were just a fantasy. Nonetheless, in 2012, Google surprised the world with the introduction of the first augmented reality head-mounted display. Named Google Glass, it prepared the ground for a new type of mixed reality device in motion. More than a decade later, Google has essentially left the category, and Apple has legitimized it with the launch of the Vision Pro. While it’s not the first spatial computing headset on the market, the launch of the Vision Pro is evidence of the company’s confidence in a future where wearable computers will be the norm.

2012: The dawn of Google Glass

The foundation was solid, but where is the tech leading us

In 2012, Google’s annual developer conference was in full swing. Following the release of its first tablet, the Nexus 7, and the ill-fated Nexus Q digital media player, Google offered the world a taste of its vision of the future of computing — Google Glass.

Reminiscent of Star Trek, in contrast to today’s bulky head-mounted units, Google’s smart glasses drew inspiration from Dragon Ball Z’s Scouter. The headset merged a prism-like heads-up display with an Android-based operating system to augment real-world interactions. Designed as a companion for smartphones, the headset was able to overlay map directions on real-world markers, enable users to read and respond to messages from the corner of their eye, and, of course, take pictures. The first Google Glass was available exclusively to developers and those who could afford its $1500 cost.

Despite the somewhat limited feature set, the initial generation of Google Glass was a relatively impressive demonstration. Touch and voice-based interactions were essential for interacting with the device. Moreover, the headset even included head and eye tracking for rudimentary gestures. Google designed Glass as an all-day companion, and it lasted for up to eight hours on a single charge. Although the app ecosystem for the wearable was predictably limited, it covered a wide range of the most obvious use cases, such as accessing recipes, translating texts, or browsing web pages and even YouTube.

Nonetheless, the headset was met with just as much criticism. The headset encouraged users to ignore social norms and check on texts or browse the internet while engaging in real-world interactions. The head-mounted camera, in particular, was frequently called out and gave rise to the term ‘glasshole’.

However, Google decided to press on with its plans to publicly launch the headset in the US and UK as part of its Glass Explorer program. The road ahead was clear; the era of augmented reality headsets and smart glasses was about to become real.

2014: Democratizing VR with Google Cardboard

The most accessible VR headset Google has ever made

Google’s second experiment with VR and AR headsets was the polar opposite of Google Glass. Rather than attempting to envision the future, Google Cardboard’s goal was to make virtual reality experiences accessible at incredibly low prices. Now, before you get ahead of yourself, in no way was Google Cardboard about to replace full-fledged VR headsets like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. In fact, the VR headset was little more than a cardboard box to place your phone in and lenses to simulate a VR effect.

All the processing was done on the phone, and the quality of the experience was mainly determined by its capabilities. Despite that, Google Cardboard democratized VR experiences in environments like education. Apps like Google Expeditions encouraged educators to take students on trips to museums or the exotic locales like the Grand Canyon. Other apps allowed students to paint in 3D space or view 3D renditions of works by masters like Hieronymus Bosch. The cardboard-based design encouraged users to interact with the headset and figure out how it worked. In fact, Google even distributed the schematics of the headset for free, allowing anyone with some spare time and a piece of cardboard to craft their own.

2015: Google Glass for consumers canceled

Glass is out. So what comes next?

The moment had arrived in 2015 when it became evident that public opinion about Google Glass was far from positive. More importantly, there was a lack of real-world use cases that couldn’t be served equally well by a much more discreet smartwatch. Be it the extremely high price point or the sci-fi design, the writing was on the wall. But perhaps the most impactful detriment was the social connotation of using the Google Glass in public. The term ‘glasshole’ had become common parlance, and it just wasn’t considered cool to wear one while out and about.

By mid-January 2015, Google had terminated the Glass Explorer program. That’s not to say that it was the end of Google Glass, it lived on as an enterprise offering and was fine-tuned for industrial operations, but everyday consumers were no longer a focus.

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