Apple and Google are both looking to expand their reach into AR/VR wearables. This will position to them lead the rush to be the dominant hardware and software platforms for the metaverse.
The metaverse – a platform in which participants can immerse themselves in a three-dimensional virtual reality – is attracting billions of dollars of investment from Big Tech companies and venture capital firms. But the vision for using AR/VR glasses and headsets as gateway to extend the power of Big Tech into the metaverse clashes with a more utopian view of the metaverse.
Plans for New Wearables
Apple and Google are both gearing up to release new AR/VR wearables in the coming months.
Apple forecasters (including MacRumors, Tom’s Guide and 9to5mac) are predicting Apple will release an AR/VR headset, possibly as soon as 2022 with a product called Apple Glasses to follow. The glasses will have an AR display that covers your entire field of vision. This would allow you to interact with augmented reality objects just like you would in the real world. Presumably, these devices would run on a version of either iOS or Mac OS.
Google also appears to be planning to be planning to (re-)enter the AR/VR wearables space, although details are scarce.
As Ars Technica noted, Google was one of the early leaders in augmented reality (AR) research. But it appears as though the company shifted its focus away from this technology. Google’s “ahead of its time” Google Glass product, released in 2013, may have been a technical success but was a consumer and PR failure
Meanwhile, Apple and Meta and others such as graphics processing leader Invidia have been investing heavily in AR tech. To catch up, Google acquired North, a Canadian manufacturer of smart glasses, in 2020. It recently hired the former head of mixed reality operating systems at Meta, according to Ars Technica. Google is also hiring engineers and other roles for its AR team (including the “Augmented Reality Finance” group!).
Meanwhile, Meta has already heavily invested in AR/VR gear through its 2014 acquisition of headset maker Oculus. And Microsoft offers its HoloLens AR headset aimed at enterprise customers.
Gateways to the Metaverse
Wearables are critical devices for the metaverse.
“Without wearable technology to bridge between the material and virtual worlds, the metaverse will be little more than a pipedream,” wrote Aaron Raj in Tech HQ. “The whole notion of the metaverse is to experience realism virtually. And the only way to do that is through virtual reality (VR) with wearables that can support the realism experience.”
Not long after Facebook announced plans to focus much of its energy on developing the metaverse, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Time Magazine “I am really stoked about [augmented reality], and what AR can bring. … I’ll stay away from the buzzwords [like “metaverse”]. We just call it augmented reality. But I am super excited about these things. I believe that technology can do so much good in the world. And of course it depends on the creator, and whether they thought through the ways it can be used and misused.”
Clash with Decentralized Vision
The view of the metaverse through lenses provided by Big Tech clashes with a decentralized vision of the metaverse. In this view, control is distributed, rather than concentrated in the hands of Apple, Google, Meta and Microsoft. Proponents of this more utopian view see blockchain technology as a key component of the metaverse. One of the key attributes of blockchain is that it decentralizes power because it relies on the distribution of information.
“By now, we should have learned the lesson that monopolies, as well as oligopolies, work only for the one actor holding the reins while smothering innovation and denting the user experience. Blockchain and decentralization are antithetical to such plights — and this is why they must be at the core of the Multiverse,” wrote Israeli entrepreneur Ariel Shapira.
Entrepreneur and lawyer Masha Prusso wrote, “no one corporation or person should have control over whatever form the metaverse ends up being. ….
Big Tech has given us little reason to believe that it will treat the metaverse differently from what it has done with social media, and everything will be tracked and monetized. If you think online advertising is annoying now, imagine it in an immersive digital environment like the metaverse.”
Big Tech’s Own Challenges
Big Tech may have their own challenges in developing the hardware and software necessary to build the metaverse . The Federal Trade Commission is already scrutinizing Meta’s planned acquisition of Within, the developer of VR fitness app the Supernatural. And other government agencies, both inside and outside the U.S., are actively investigating Apple, Meta and Google.
If Not Big Tech, Who Will Lead?
Even if you view Big Tech suspiciously and would rather not see the same companies that dominate Web 2.0 extend that power into Web 3.0, who else will develop the hardware and software for the metaverse. The metaverse is the new blockchain (certainly figuratively if not literally). VCs are pouring money into startups with “meta” in their pitch decks. This resembles the flow of money into companies with “block” in their names in 2019.
But what startup can compete with the design chops of Apple, the sheer engineering power of Google, the funds and ambition of Meta, or the ability of any of these companies to acquire top talent? The challenge will increase if regulators block acquisitions by Big Tech in the metaverse space. This would cut off a significant exit route for startups, resulting in less funding flowing from VCs.
But history has shown that even giants eventually topple, or at least regress to the mean. Will we see a repeat of the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0? Back then, the dominant players of the older generation – AOL, Yahoo and Lycos to name a few – lost their leads to the likes of upstarts like Google and Facebook? Put on your AR/VR glasses in a few years, and you’ll see.