Apple’s Smart Glasses Could Make 2020 the Year of AR

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- After several sleepy product cycles, 2020 looks primed to be a great year for consumer gadgets. As fifth-generation wireless networks gradually proliferate, Big Tech will be readying devices that can make use of their faster speeds.

The coming year will be critical for Apple Inc. Consumers should expect its most impressive hardware rollout in some time: The iPhone is due for its first major update since 2017, including 5G support, a much beefier processor, and a rear-facing 3D camera. The latter will give the phone a better sense of where it is in physical space, improving the accuracy of object placement in augmented-reality apps, which overlay virtual images on the real world. That could make it easier for users to model, say, the placement of pictures on their walls.

Such applications are central to Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses, which are expected to have holographic displays in their lenses. Apple has targeted 2020 for the release of its AR headset, an attempt to succeed where Google Glass failed years ago. The glasses are expected to synchronize with a wearer’s iPhone to display things such as texts, emails, maps, and games over the user’s field of vision. The company has considered including an App Store with the headset, as it does on Apple TV streaming devices and the Apple Watch. It’s hiring experts in graphics and game development to establish the glasses as the leader in a new product category and, if all goes perfectly, an eventual successor to the iPhone.

That’s a big if, not least because Apple hasn’t yet come up with an application that will make the glasses a must-buy. Given that hurdle and the challenges of perfecting AR technology, the product could slip down the calendar if executives decide it needs more time in the lab.

Facebook Inc. is also working on glasses. These will take pictures and route calls from a connected phone, but the first model won’t have AR or even built-in displays. They are—surprise!—more like the Spectacles created by Snap. (They likely won’t be seen until 2021.) Meanwhile, Amazon .com Inc. is beta-testing Echo Frames glasses and a ring called the Echo Loop, both designed to attach its voice assistant, Alexa, directly to your body. But Amazon is more likely to bet big on robots, including one equipped with a screen that can follow you around the house to facilitate videoconferencing. The question is whether consumers are eager to have Amazon listening to them everywhere they go.

Microsoft Corp. plans to release the Surface Duo, a mini dual-screen tablet able to run apps side by side, make and receive calls, and fold into a smaller travel package, in time for the 2020 holiday season. The Surface Duo will run on Android and use apps from Google’s Play store; it could compete with the updated iPhone, forthcoming 5G Google Pixel phones, and 2020 models from Samsung Electronics Co. and others. Samsung is also working on new folding devices. Apple plans other revamps for later next year, too: a Watch with sleep-tracking features and Macs that might run on custom processors, which would likely have greater efficiency and lower battery drain.

Plugging into the new wireless networks is key to next year’s innovations. “The largest, most meaningful growth will be driven partially by the uptake and buildout of 5G,” says Patrick Moorhead, founder of consulting firm Moor Insights & Strategy. “With 5G comes the demand for 5G, and if you’re a smartphone maker without it, you’ll be at a disadvantage.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeff Muskus at jmuskus@bloomberg.net

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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