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This week, news surfaced that Google had “shelved” its Iris smart glasses project earlier this year. This has been framed as a casualty of layoffs, reshuffles, and the departure of Google’s AR/VR chief. Even when the project was up and running, “Google leaders kept changing the strategy for the Iris eyewear as it was in development, which led to the team rotating constantly, frustrating many employees.”
Google’s focus right now is described as “Android for AR,” a model where it builds the operating system and software instead of the hardware. It looks very similar to the current Android-OEM model for phones and tablets, which is obviously successful.
Leverage the strengths of Android teams in developing and maintaining software used by billions, while enabling partner benefits. Samsung’s inaugural headset allegedly leverages large-scale production and display experience, while Qualcomm is several generations in AR/VR/XR chipsets.
Meanwhile, Google’s existing phone-based AR apps are very well positioned for smart glasses. Google Lens could very well be the Assistant pulling up that form factor, while Live View’s utility for directions and wayfinding speaks for itself.
For the sake of the software experience, I hope the Android team can exercise more control than phones, tablets, and watches. A Google TV-like arrangement where OEMs can’t greatly change the home screen would be ideal. I’m sure Samsung will want to put its own spin on the UI, but hopefully Google can negotiate a compromise there.
That said, if Google killed Iris because it’s going all-in on the Android-OEM model, I have concerns for the hardware division.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that AR glasses are the future; it’s the only form factor that can realistically replace smartphones as the primary computing device for most people. Indeed, it can even replace your laptop with infinitely floating screens and keyboards, while the ability to see information overlaid in the real world will lead to revolutionary use cases for which Google’s availability is well positioned.
With everything at stake, you’d expect Google to be working on this in a sustained way, like Apple and Meta, even if it won’t be ready for several years.
It also seemed to me that smart glasses were Google’s opportunity to break out of the OEM model and be the first to do something entirely in-house and end-to-end.
Before the cancellation, that really seemed to be the plan, between Google’s acquisition of North in 2020 and I/O 2022 which ended with Google stating its interest in AR, showing off a pair of glasses for translation and saying:
These AR features are already useful on phones, and the magic will truly come to life when you can use them in the real world without technology getting in the way. This potential is what excites us most about AR. The ability to spend time focusing on what matters in the real world in our real lives.
It’s important that we design in a way that’s built for the real world and you don’t shy away from it. And AR offers us new ways to achieve this.
In July 2022, Google announced it would begin testing AR prototypes in the real world. Later, in October, the company began using Glass Enterprise paired with a Tensor-powered Pixel phone to test AR features more publicly.
Months later, something about the plan has clearly changed.
Ultimately, there are a lot of unknowns, including why the project was stopped. One reason I can think of is that Google looked at the hardware landscape and felt that the technology (display, batteries, miniaturization, etc.) was not ready. THE Business Insider the report said “it was possible that Google could resurrect the Iris glasses one day and that some teams were still experimenting with AR technologies.”
Hopefully, the ultimate goal is still to build Google glasses.
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