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Pakko De La Torre // Creative Director

Meta, Apple, Google, Microsoft gear up for big augmented reality year

Meta, Apple, Google, Microsoft gear up for big augmented reality year

2022 is poised to be the biggest year yet for “the metaverse,” as Facebook parent Meta, Apple, Microsoft and Google gear up to release new hardware products and software services in what so far has been a niche market for early adopters.

The “metaverse” describes software and hardware that allow users to play or work in virtual 3-D spaces, or pull in information from the internet and integrate it with the real world in real time. For now, the metaverse might be accessed through a smartphone, but eventually, it will be experienced through advanced virtual reality or augmented reality headsets, backers say.

Big Tech companies are betting that gadgets that transport their users into enhanced or imaginary worlds will open up the biggest new market in software since Apple introduced the touchscreen smartphone in 2007. If the metaverse takes off, then perhaps everyone who has a smartphone today will also have a pair of computer glasses or a VR headset in a few years.

“Large tech platforms (which benefited from the rise of mobile computing apps) now look toward augmented reality as the next computing platform shift,” Goldman Sachs analyst Eric Sheridan wrote in a December note. He said it appears to be the “next logical shift in consumption patterns” and will create new industry leaders.

Venture capitalists invested $10 billion in virtual world start-ups in 2021, according to Crunchbase, and that doesn’t count the budgets from Big Tech players. For example, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company spent so much money on VR and AR in 2021 that it cut the company’s profit by $10 billion.

Here’s where the big names in technology stand and what they’re expected to release next year:

Apple has never confirmed it is working on a headset, but it has been prototyping approaches inside its Technology Development Group for years.

Apple has been laying the groundwork for a major new product category. Its newer iPhones come equipped with Lidar sensors, which can measure how far away an object is — critical for location-based applications. Recent iPhones and iPads have software installed called ARkit, which allows developers to create apps that use the iPhone’s sensors for precise room mapping and localization.

Unlike Meta, Apple doesn’t discuss new hardware products until they are ready to be revealed. When Apple does release a headset, it is likely to shake up the entire market and provide a new approach for many challengers, like the iPhone did for smartphones and the Apple Watch did for smartwatches.

Investors and market analysts are starting to wonder if future sales from headsets or other reality-based gadgets should push Apple’s stock even higher if it does release its first major new product category in seven years.

Microsoft was the first Big Tech company to introduce a fully featured AR headset, HoloLens, in 2016. But its current product is still a long way from a device that consumers will wear on a regular basis.

Instead, Microsoft has focused on “enterprise,” or selling headsets to businesses that can stomach the $3,500 list price and want to see if the technology makes its workers more productive.

The highest-profile client for HoloLens is the U.S. military. Microsoft won a $22 billion deal earlier this year to sell 120,000 custom HoloLenses to the government so soldiers can use them to “increase lethality.” However, earlier this year, the Army said it would delay the start of a HoloLens field test to 2022.

Whether the deal continues to get delayed or whether it turns out to be a winner for both sides will be an important signal for the ultimate health of the augmented reality market.

HoloLens has also piqued the interest of medical companies, who want to see if augmented reality can help improve operating rooms or even help do surgery remotely.

Microsoft is heavily investing in cloud services to be the glue for virtual worlds expected to be released to the public in 2022.

In March, the company announced Mesh, which allows software makers to create apps that allow different devices to share the same digital reality. Mesh works a little like a video call, only with three-dimensional holograms. Microsoft laid the groundwork for this push in 2017 when it acquired AltspaceVR.

These metaverse software features will be launched in 2022. Microsoft is integrating Mesh into its videoconferencing app, Teams, later this year. Features for Xbox games, another natural fit, are also in the works, with no release date yet. But it remains to be seen if AR headsets improve the kind of productivity applications that Microsoft is best known for.

Still, CEO Satya Nadella is enthusiastic.

“I can’t overstate how much of a breakthrough this is,” Nadella said in November.

This content was originally published here.