News is just out that Facebook has locked up an exclusive deal with microLED leader Plessey to supply next-generation micro displays to power augmented reality glasses. Read on for the context and implications…
Beyond smartphones will likely be smartglasses
After the TV and desktop came the laptop and tablet and then the smartphone. The progress of our interfaces with technology and information will not end here. The most obvious contender for the immediate successor to the smartphone is some form of augmented reality glasses.
I have been writing about the potential of augmented reality glasses for over a decade, even being honored at the top of a list of ‘failed’ tech predictions for the 2010s for my prognostications in late 2009 of AR as a core form of human augmentation.
More recently I have noted:
I believe it is absolutely inevitable that we will have truly immersive virtual reality experiences and widespread adoption of AR glasses, initially by those who already wear glasses.
The timeframe for this to happen is far more uncertain, driven by unknowns in the development of the enabling technologies, consumer uptake, and the often tortuous dynamics of intensely competitive emerging industries.
To the last point, the key question beyond sufficient development of the underlying technologies is the competition to lead in what could be an extraordinary new market, given smartphone sales have peaked after years of growth, falling 2% last year and diving 38% year-on-year recently in response to coronavirus.
The major contenders: Apple, Facebook, and the others
At this point the players most likely to succeed in this market are Apple and Facebook. There have been some promising startups over the last years, but the slow pace of development of the technologies and market, compounded by the current economic crisis, have put many out of the picture.
North Wearables, which had launched the attractive Focals, is currently looking for a buyer. Last year the exciting company Meta shut down. The oh-so-sexy Magic Leap is looking for a sale but may not get through.
As I have previously described, Apple is generally considered a front-runner. It successfully redefined and dominated major new categories such as portable digital music players, smartphones, and tablets, and even without Steve Jobs at the helm is working hard to do that for smartglasses, with CEO Tim Cook saying “everyone” will use AR.
Mark Zuckerberg also sees this as a massive opportunity:
The technology platform of the 2010s was the mobile phone. The platform of the 2000s before that was about the web, and the 1990s was the desktop computer. Each computing platform becomes more ubiquitously accessible and natural for us to interact with. While I expect phones to still be our primary devices through most of this decade, at some point in the 2020s, we will get breakthrough augmented reality glasses that will redefine our relationship with technology.
With such a long development timeframe for widespread adoption of smartglasses, startups will find it hard to compete with the highly-capitalized tech majors such as Facebook, Apple, and potentially others such as Amazon, Google (which previously launched Google Glass and could try again), or conceivably Microsoft.
Locking up microLED supplies
Before Facebook’s deal with Plessey, apparently both Apple and Facebook had expressed interest in buying the company, but anti-trust legislation could readily have blocked them, leading to Facebook contracting to buy all of the company’s supply.
Plessey’s monolithic microLED technology is brighter and more power-efficient than previous alternatives, and enables a 1920×1080 display in a 1.8cm diagonal.
There are other a handful of other potential suppliers, but Plessey appears to be in the lead on the technology.
While both Apple and Facebook are saying the technologies are “years” away from becoming consumer products, it is possible one of them may release a product sooner to establish a lead in the burgeoning space.