Today, augmented reality is the stuff of Pokemon and puppy-face filters, but someday, it will be socially acceptable to wear high-tech AR glasses tying us to the virtual world around the clock. At least, that's according to Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Oculus Research, in a talk about Facebook's annual developer conference.
Facebook shed light on several of its research endeavors at its F8 developers conference this week. In a keynote there (Oculus is owned by Facebook) Abrash discussed a long-term vision of how virtual computing – specifically, AR glasses – will someday become as widespread as smartphones and infinitely more useful.
What is meant by augmented reality (AR), and what is it good for? Essentially, AR brings elements of the virtual world into the real world. At this point, we access the virtual world primarily through 2D displays, but AR provides a platform where the information we get from our smartphones (and so much more that hasn't been invented yet) is woven into the world around us.
By looking through AR glasses, Abrash says, we could still see the real world around us, but with a wealth of artificial intelligence and virtual objects available at just a glance. A few of the possible benefits? Reminders about people's names, co-workers sharing virtual whiteboards, the ability to tell if a child has a fever, the ability to mute background noise or translate conversations in real-time, plus fun additions like the stickers, art and filters already found in our smartphone cameras.
But Abrash reminds us that in addition to these predictions, there are likely applications we haven't even fathomed yet. Even early adopters of the smartphone would not have anticipated everyday technology like ride-sharing apps, which have become mainstream enough to disrupt the transportation economy.
There's no telling how far off into the future this scenario will become a reality. Abrash says the requisite technology for lightweight, aesthetically-pleasing glasses does not exist yet. Advances – many of them dramatic – need to be made in optics, audio, interaction, computer vision, AI, system design and the user experience before things will come close to fruition. By Abrash's (loose) estimate, it could take five years, a decade or longer before there is a reasonable consumer edition of AR glasses.
Despite the long-term nature of these inclinations, Abrash and by extension, Facebook, is convinced that AR glasses need to be on our long-term radar when we envision the future. Just as it took decades for the personal computing revolution to move out of the laboratory and onto our desks, Abrash predicts that AR will become increasingly capable over the next several years, to the point that glasses will replace smartphones as our go-to connected devices. (We had similar thoughts about the future in our HoloLens review.)
If Facebook's far-off research in AR seems ambitious to you, you may be even more amazed at other projects it announced at F8. For instance, its product development team is trying to make it possible to type with your mind and "hear" through your skin.