Oculus’s Michael Abrash: AR glasses will change everything in ‘the next 50 years’

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Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash believes that we may soon see the proliferation of augmented reality glasses, describing it as possibly being “one of the great transformational technologies of the next 50 years.” But he doesn’t think that a copy of Google Glass isn’t going to cut it, that AR glasses must be see-through, stylish, and socially acceptable, among other things.

At this year’s F8 developer conference, Facebook put forth the next phase of its push towards augmented reality, introducing its camera effects platform in closed beta which would let anyone create their own Snapchat-like masks and display contextual information inside images. Powered through its camera app, company chief executive Mark Zuckerberg described it as the “first augmented reality platform.”

While Zuckerberg and chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer touted the benefits of Facebook’s newest platform, Abrash sought to impart wisdom on attendees about AR’s potential. While bringing the technology into smartphones, the camera you’re going to have on you practically at all times, there have been efforts made to make them more convenient, or at least that was the intent. And even while none have really succeeded, Abrash suggested that in the long-term an AR-enabled wearable will become available outside of the phone.

“Twenty or thirty years from now, I predict that instead of carrying stylish smartphones everywhere, we’ll be wearing stylish glasses,” he said during his F8 keynote address. “Those glasses will offer virtual reality, AR, and everything in-between, and we will wear them all day and use them in almost all aspects of our lives. The distinction between AR and VR will vanish. The real and virtual world will mix and match throughout the day according to our needs.”

When it comes to VR, the norm is that you’re wearing a headset like for the Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR, but for AR and mixed reality, “few people are absolutely comfortable socializing in-person with someone whose eyes they can’t see and social acceptability is an absolute requirement for wearing it in public,” Abrash declared.

Having see-through AR glasses is part of the journey to achieving what he said was “full AR” which is augmentation that enhances the vision and hearing of the wearer seamlessly to make them smarter and more capable, while also being “light, comfortable, stylish, power efficient, and socially acceptable enough to accompany you everywhere you go.”

Even if he didn’t mention Google by name, it’s evident that Abrash was referencing the sentiment Google Glass received years ago.

Some of the use cases he alluded to around AR glasses include being able to see in low light, communicating with people in other parts of the world, being able to see better, quickly translate words, display information about the food you’re eating, mute random noises in the background, run a diagnostic test on someone, and even prompt you when you run into someone you don’t remember the name of.

Abrash’s speech seemed designed to cast a different light on AR, something that many are probably attributing to what Snapchat and Facebook is doing. The move towards bringing this technology to more devices and applications could cause people to have different ideas about what it is, so his talk may have been intended to inspire developers to think more creatively and strategically versus simply churning out things like useless bots.

Perhaps it was intended to spark the imagination of developers. The Information reports (subscription required) that Facebook’s engineering director Ficus Kirkpatrick was repeatedly asked by developers about why they should care about the camera effects platform, causing confusion about its actual usefulness. Abrash’s talk may have been aimed at putting a spotlight on the bigger picture.

This talk comes a year after the Oculus chief scientist also pontificated on stage about why people will care about virtual reality, offering up another TED-like talk about the new frontier.

Naturally while these words of wisdom are inspiring, it’s also an effort to get developer support behind what Facebook is doing. He remarked that “unless AR glasses made for broad consumers are literally impossible, which I doubt, they will become a reality in the not too distant future” suggesting that it could be at least five years before we see AR having its Macintosh moment.

But in order to have AR glasses be as ubiquitous as smartphones, full AR is needed and the devices cannot be for “occasional or special case” usage. “It’s the always-on helper, continually aware of your surroundings, your context and your history, constantly mixing the real and virtual worlds to serve your needs to keep you connected,” Abrash said.

Much more work is needed, including in the areas of optics and displays, audio, interaction, computer vision, artificial intelligence, system design, and user experience. It’s possible that as Facebook gets more involved with the technology, acquisition of startups working in these areas might be possible.

“The tipping point will come with full, always-on, go everywhere audio/visual AR glasses, and that will certainly take five years, although it could take 10 years,” Abrash claimed.

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