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After Reports of Canned AR Glasses, Google’s XR Ambition May Just Be a Daydream Without Samsung

After Reports of Canned AR Glasses, Google's XR Ambition May Just Be a Daydream Without Samsung

Google has reportedly halted a multi-year project that sought to commercialize an AR headset, known as Project Iris. If the report is true, it appears that Google will now have to rely on Samsung to compete with the Meta and Apple with the XR.

According to Business Insider, Google shut down Project Iris earlier this year following a mass restructuring, which included layoffs, reshuffles, and the departure of Clay Bavor, Google’s head of AR and VR. The report, which has not been verified by Google, cited “three people familiar with the matter.”

According to a report from The Verge it was earlier this year that Project Iris was first mentioned, around 300 people are said to be working on the headset, which is said to expand to “hundreds more” as production ramps up.

At the time, the prototype was said to be a standalone, ski goggle-like headset that provided onboard power, computing, and outward-facing cameras for world sensing capabilities—similar in description and function to headsets such as HoloLens or Magic Leap. Project Iris is said to be shipping as early as 2024.

Two unnamed Google employees said Business Insider the company may actually revive Project Iris at some point, since the teams experimenting with AR tech haven’t been completely disbanded. However, it seems that its Samsung XR headset partnership and AR software development have been the main focus.

Samsung Future, Daydream Past

With its own in-house hardware reportedly out of the picture, going forward Google is set to focus on the software side of AR, which also includes the Android XR platform it can license to OEM partners. Google is now developing such a platform for Samsung’s upcoming XR headset announced in February, as well as a so-called “micro XR” platform for XR glasses, said to use a prototyping platform known internally as “Betty.”

Google is notorious for shelving projects all the time for various reasons, so it’s not a big surprise that an expensive hardware project goes on ice during an economic downturn. It’s also possible that the company saw the writing on the wall from its earlier VR hardware projects, which were ahead of the competition, but not repetitive enough to stick around.

In 2016, the company’s Daydream VR platform was positioned to compete with Meta’s (then Facebook) own mobile VR offering, the Samsung Gear VR. With Bavor at the helm, the company is looking to replicate Samsung/Meta’s approach to certifying smartphones to work with a dedicated Daydream View headset shell and controller. Google has certified a wide range of smartphones that will work with Daydream, including Pixel, LG, Asus, Huawei, and even some Samsung phones that are compatible with the Gear VR.

And Google’s ambitions are, let’s say, It’s huge. At its unveiling at I/O 2016, senior product manager Brahim Elbouchikhi said on stage that Google aims to get “hundreds of millions of users with Daydream devices.” No modern VR headset platform has reached that number of users even today, with Meta likely leading the way with sales of nearly 20 million Quest headsets between 2019 and early 2023.

Lenovo Mirage Solo | Photo of Road to VR

Despite big ambitions to occupy the space early on, the Gear VR has become a clear winner in the fledgling mobile VR market. Undeterred, Google expanded its horizons in 2017 to open up its Daydream platform with one of the first true standalone VR headsets—or rather a standalone headset—the Lenovo Mirage Solo standalone, which awkwardly mixed 6DOF positional tracking with a 3DOF controller. The Lenovo Mirage Solo is a real head-scratcher, as its room-scale content is hobbled by a remote-style controller, which is critically untracked in 3D space.

Ultimately, Google shut down the entire Daydream platform in 2019 because it couldn’t attract enough developer support. On the outside, this makes it look like Google has lost the VR race entirely, but most standalone headsets on the market today run on top of a modified version of Android. Granted, that standalone VR content revenue doesn’t flow into Google’s coffers because it doesn’t control individual storefronts like it might with a VR version of Google Play.

But that could change with its new Samsung/Qualcomm partnership, which represents a new opportunity for Google to finally stake a claim in the mounting mixed reality (MR) race.

MR Headsets Walk, AR Headsets Run

MR headsets are virtual reality headsets that use color passthrough cameras to offer an augmented reality view, allowing you to do VR things like play games in a fully immersive environment in addition using passthrough to shoot zombies in your living room, or watch a virtual giant. TV in your real-life bathroom (for optimal user comfort).

It’s still early days for MR headsets. While devices like the Meta Quest Pro ($1,000) and Apple’s recently announced Vision Pro ($3,500) are likely to appeal to prosumers and enterprises due to their high prices, there’s an uphill battle for consumer eyeballs. Provided that the under-wraps Samsung XR headset can land at a digestible price for consumers, its brand name cache and patented global reach could serve up strong competition to the upcoming Quest 3 MR Meta headset, due in September for $500.

Apple Vision Pro | Image courtesy of Apple

Price speculation aside, companies launching MR headsets now will be better positioned to launch all-day AR headsets in the future. Platform holders like Meta are using their MR headsets today as test beds to see what appeals most to consumers of AR content. Apple will do that when it launches Vision Pro in 2024 on a deeper level, as the Cupertino tech giant seems to be completely ignoring the VR stuff.

Whatever the case, Google’s decision to shelve Project Iris means it will be more reliant on OEMs in the near term, and its first volley at the Android-powered Samsung XR headset will reveal the size of its ambitions. this. It’s a strategy that could work in its favor as it critically gauges when, if, to revive its own Google-made AR glasses. With Apple and Meta both staking serious claims though, it needs to solidify the strategy sooner rather than later.

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