While Facebook has made VR a key focus as the next evolution for social networks, AR also plays an important part, and could be key to bridging the gap between where we are now and that next stage.
And this week, Facebook has taken a big step towards maximizing its potential in the AR race by striking a deal with microLED provider Plessey, which is one of the few companies that's able to provide the key components required to make functional AR glasses a reality.
As announced by Plessey:
"We have decided to work with Facebook to help achieve their vision of the next computing platform centred around people. Under a new commercial agreement, our LED manufacturing operations will be dedicated to helping Facebook prototype and develop new technologies for potential use in the AR/VR space. With consumer devices like Oculus Quest and a continued legacy of breakthrough research, Facebook is one of the companies best-positioned to make consumer-ready AR glasses a reality."
The goal here, as noted, is to create viable, fashionable, accessible AR-enabled glasses, which no company has been able to do as yet. Google Glass came relatively close some years back, while Snap Inc. has been trying. And now, Facebook could be the one to take it to the next level - despite Apple's efforts to beat The Social Network to the punch.
Indeed, according to reports, Apple had also been working to make a deal with, or even acquire Plessey outright. Plessey is at the forefront of the microLED technology required to make AR overlays work, and while reports had suggested that Apple is already in the production phase of its Project StartBoard augmented reality glasses, with a view to launching the device in the second quarter of 2020, the fact that it's seemingly lost out on a deal with Plessey could suggest that Facebook is now in the box seat.
Facebook's been developing its AR-enabled glasses for some time - back in 2016, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed some initial images of the company's AR glasses prototype at its F8 developer conference, while also outlining some potential applications.
Last year, details of one of Facebook's patents were released, which provided a more specific overview of how its AR glasses would work.
That patent, however, was from 2017, so it's likely that Facebook's development of its AR glasses has advanced significantly since then. The deal with Plessey suggests that it could be even closer than many thought - of course, the current COVID-19 situation may cause delays in any such process, particularly in regards to manufacturing the key elements.
But then again, given that everyone's locked indoors, with limited means for interaction, maybe, right now is the best time to be pushing ahead with a new AR-enabled device, providing another option to keep people entertained and connected.
The implications of AR are significant - fully-enabled AR would facilitate a whole new means of connection to the real world, with overlays providing immediate information on your surroundings, including location-based pointers, health reminders, messages, etc. And it would also provide new avenues for advertising. We've already seen examples like Google's AR tools for Street View, which can provide directions, along with information about stores and locations, while retail giants like Walgreens have been testing out AR applications to highlight special deals and offers in store.
Imagine that overlaid onto your view, at any time. Of course, there's a level of intrusion with such advertising, so strict user control measures would need to be in place. But the arrival of AR glasses - which is a 'when' not 'if' - will open up a whole new range of opportunities for connecting with consumers at just the right time in their purchase journey.
The company that can get there first stands to win out. As noted, Apple is working on its tools, while Snapchat continues to evolve its Spectacles. But maybe, Facebook could be the one who gets an actual, functional AR wearable to market before anyone else.
The deal with Plessey could be a key step. Worth keeping track on how it develops from here.