Image: Google / North
A new report sheds light on Google’s difficulties in developing AR hardware.
Business Insider spoke with seven current and former employees familiar with Google’s AR efforts, and they’re upset with how things are being handled by management.
“They’re dabbling,” one insider said of Google’s AR projects. “I don’t think this is a space where you can lead the industry if your commitment level is dabbling.”
The report details the course of AR hardware development and paints a chaotic picture, marked by canceled projects, constant pivots, and high-profile departures.
Google’s AR glasses: Many changes led to much frustration
According to the report, Google is pursuing two classes of devices: AR glasses (called “Project Iris” until its cancellation in early 2023) and a mixed reality headset (“Project Moohan”) similar to the Apple Vision Pro.
Google began building a team for Project Iris in 2020. That same year, Google acquired a startup called North, which was developing smart glasses with a HUD-like display. Google had envisioned a pair of AR glasses that would support applications like Google Maps and Google Lens, and had begun developing two specialized AR chips, codenamed Alius and Alexandrite.
But the project had reportedly hit technical hurdles. The team swung from conventional glasses as a form factor target to sunglasses, and back again.
In May 2022, Google teased a pair of smart glasses that could translate text in real time at its I/O conference. But Google abandoned the idea a short time later, the report says. “Every six months there was a major pivot in the program,” the persons say. “They would look at it and say, ‘We want a slightly different product.'”
Earlier this year, Project Iris and the AR chip development were reportedly canceled. Google’s longtime AR and VR Clay Bavor left the company a few weeks later, which led to a “state of chaos” in the AR group. In July, Mark Lucovsky left, who was leading the development of an AR operating system for Google. He cited Google’s “unstable commitment and vision” in the AR space as the reason. He commented on the Business Insider report via Twitter, saying, “I don’t miss the drama.”
But these difficulties don’t mean that Google has abandoned the idea of AR glasses. The report says the company has created a new team to work on monocular (codenamed Betty) and binocular (codenamed Barry) AR glasses, and is developing an operating system that Google plans to license similar to Android. Google is currently looking for a hardware partner (possibly Samsung) to build the AR glasses, but the device will not be launched until 2025 at the earliest. Google is also working internally on other AR hardware that could pave the way for everyday AR headsets, the report says.
A complicated partnership with Samsung
The second class of device Google is currently working on is a mixed reality headset (Project Moohan). Rumors that Apple is launching such a device have raised concerns among Google’s leadership, the report says.
Google teamed up with long-time partner Samsung to build a competitive product. Samsung would provide the hardware and Google the operating system. However, the partnership is reportedly causing internal headaches.
Samsung told Google it didn’t want other hardware teams working on Google AR products to be privy to the project’s technology for fear they might build a competing product based on that information. This is causing problems for Project Iris development. “How could you build glasses and not get Samsung riled up?” one person close to the project said.
Such an agreement also meant that Samsung would be more likely to call the shots on Project Moohan’s product features, the report says. In July, rumors surfaced that Samsung had delayed the launch of the headset and wanted to completely redesign it first, fearing it wouldn’t be able to compete with Vision Pro. However, even if the device is released in summer of 2024, it won’t come close to Apple’s headset, one of the persons said.