Sunday December 04, 2022

Google is building an AR headset

Clay Bavor, Google Vice President.Photo by Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty ImagesMeta might be the most loud company creating AR and VR hardware. Microsoft has HoloLens. Apple is also working on something. Google is not to be overlooked.
According to two people familiar, the search giant has been ramping up its AR headset work, codenamed Project Iris internally. It hopes to ship it in 2024. Google’s headset, which is similar to the forthcoming headsets from Meta, Apple, and Google, uses outward-facing cameras that blend computer graphics with a live video feed from the real world. This creates a more immersive, mixed-reality experience than the existing AR glasses from Snap and Magic Leap. The prototypes, which are being developed in the San Francisco Bay Area, resemble ski goggles and do not require an external power source.
Google’s headset is still in early development and does not have a clear go-to-market strategy. This suggests that the 2024 target year may not be as concrete as it seems. The hardware runs on Android and is powered by a custom Google processor. However, recent job listings suggest that a new OS is in development. Google’s strategy is to use power limitations to remotely render graphics and beam them to the headset via an internet link. Although the Pixel team is involved with some hardware pieces, it’s not clear if the headset will be Pixel-branded. Google Glass is unlikely to be named due to early backlash (remember “Glasshole?”). It technically exists as an enterprise product.
Project Iris marks the return to a category of hardware that Google has a long, and sometimes turbulent history. It began with the 2012 debut of Google Glass, which was a splashy and disastrous failure. Then, a multi-year effort in 2019 to sell VR headsets quietly failed. Since then, Google has been quiet about its hardware ambitions in the space. Instead, it has focused on software features such as Lens, its visual search engine and AR directions in Google Maps. Mark Zuckerberg has been betting his company on AR, VR, and hiring thousands. He also rebranded from Facebook to Meta. “Metaverse,” has become a defining buzzword. Apple is working on its own mixed reality headset.
Project Iris is a secretive project within Google. It is located in a building that requires keycard access and non disclosure agreements. Google plans to hire hundreds of additional people to expand the core team that is working on the headset. The executive overseeing the effort is Clay Bavor, who reports directly to CEO Sundar Pichai and also manages Project Starline, an ultra-high-resolution video chat booth that was demoed last year.

Google’s Project Starline
Project Iris could be a technological marvel, if Starline is any indication. Starline is a remarkable tech demo, according to those who have tried it. Its ability to create 3D avatars of the people you are chatting with is said to be hyper-realistic. Google conducted an eye-tracking study with employees and found that Starline users were more focused on the person they were speaking to than traditional video calls. Memory recall was also better when people were asked about details of conversations.
I have heard that Google hopes to ship Starline and Iris by 2024. In a previously unknown move, it recently added Paul Greco, Magic Leap’s Chief Technology Officer, to its team. Starline is currently being piloted to facilitate remote meetings with Fortune 500 companies. Google is also planning to use Starline internally in its hybrid work strategy after the pandemic. Starline’s main focus is to bring down the cost of each unit from tens or thousands of dollars. (Like Iris there is a possibility that Google doesn’t reach its Starline ship year target.
Bavor has been managing Google’s VR and AR efforts since the inception of Daydream and Google Cardboard, which were both hardware and software platforms for virtual reality. He is a close friend to Pichai, who has been with Google since 2005. He was promoted to VP of Labs last November. This title covers Project Starline, Iris, and Google’s in house product incubator, Area 120. According to Google, he told his employees that the Labs team was “focused on extrapolating technological trends and incubating high-potential, long term projects.”
Project Iris also has other leaders such as:
Shahram Izadi is a senior engineer who also manages Google’s ARCore toolkit.
Eddie Chung is a senior director in product management and previously managed product for Google Lens.
Scott Huffman is the founder of Google Assistant and is the VP.
Kurt Akeley is an engineer and former CTO at Lytro, a light-field camera startup.
Mark Lucovsky is Google’s senior director for operating systems for AR. He was previously in a similar position at Meta
Focals were North’s first smart glasses. Google purchased the company in mid 2020 before the second version was released. Image: NorthGoogle’s interest AR stems back to Glass and its early investment into Magic Leap. According to my sources, the Magic Leap investment was designed to allow the company to purchase the company if it found a viable path to mass market AR hardware. Bavor stated in a 2019 interview that he describes the current phase as “deep R&D,” where he is focused on building the critical Lego bricks behind closed-doors. Google purchased North, a smart glasses startup that focused on fitting AR technology into normal-looking eyewear a year later.
The majority of the North team is still employed by Google. Recent job postings for waveguides, a display technology better suited to AR glasses than an immersive headset such as Project Iris, suggest that they could be working on a Canadian device. Google declined to comment on this story.
Pichai stated last October on an earnings call, that Google is “thinking through AR” and that it will be “a major area of investment for Google.” The company has the cash to finance ambitious ideas. It has top technical talent, an Android-based software ecosystem, and compelling AR glasses such as Google Lens. It’s not clear if Google will invest as aggressively in AR and VR as Meta, which already spends $10 billion annually. Apple has thousands of people working on its headset, as well as a more advanced pair of AR glasses. Google appears to be playing catch-up until it makes clear otherwise.

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