Is 2021 finally the year for smart glasses? Here's why some experts still say no

Key Points
  • The tech industry has long worked to produce a fashionable, lightweight pair of consumer smart glasses that puts bulky headsets to shame, but experts say widespread adoption is five to ten years away.
  • New designs are making headway in 2021, with Facebook, Vuzix and Lenovo models expected to hit the market as early as this summer, and an Apple offering possible by 2023.
  • Smart glasses date back nearly a decade, but early consumer ventures like Google Glass deterred consumers with high price points and lack of linked content.

In this article

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at Facebook's F8 Developer Conference on April 18, 2017 at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California.
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Big technology corporations including Apple, Alphabet's Google and Microsoft have raced to create a pair of fashionable smart glasses readily embraced by consumers, but 2021 is shaping up to be one more year these gadgets fall short of mass adoption.

With a launch of Facebook smart glasses as early as this summer, technology companies are getting one step closer, but widespread consumer interest is five to 10 years away, says Tuong Nguyen, a principal analyst at technology consulting firm Gartner. And some tech CEOS agree. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel speculated it would be at least 10 years before consumers widely adopt smart glasses speaking during the 2019 TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

A recent report from Gartner forecasts the wearable device market will see significant growth, but that includes not only smart glasses but watches and virtual reality headsets. Gadgets like the Apple Watch already have been big successes. Gartner forecasts wearables will reach $109 billion by 2024, with watches and virtual reality headsets for gaming growing by compounded annual growth rates of 20% and 22%, respectively. 

For smart glasses, the lag in mass market adoption is a result of slow progress on easy-to-use designs, fashionable appearances and easy-to-use content, Nguyen said. Many products remain bulky, making it a hard sell for consumers looking to stay fashionable on the go, while slow connectivity issues dissuade those looking for efficiency. Companies also have yet to work out powering kinks such as whether its tethered to a computer or battery-powered.

But the latest iterations of smart glasses are showing progress. Last week, Vuzix premiered a fashion-forward product at the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show expected to hit the market this summer and that will feature speakers, noise-canceling microphones and offer options supporting WiFi and data.

New Vuzix smart glasses priced at $1,000 are expected to hit the market in mid-2021 and will mark the company's first foray into the consumer end of what has been an enterprise market for this growing niche of wearables.

The Rochester-headquartered company, which has long created smart glasses products for enterprise clients, is making its first major foray into the consumer market. In 2015, Intel Corp. invested nearly $25 million for a 30% stake in the company.

Lenovo introduced its ThinkReality A3 smart glasses at CES, which tether to a PC and some Motorola devices. These smart glasses allow users to project several virtual screens at once and come with an added speaker and microphone for interacting with peers or coworkers.

There's also a range of everyday benefits to this product niche which continue to multiply as it develops. Smart glasses can be used for virtual shopping, figuring out what furniture fits into homes, and could one day replace screens entirely, said Rick Kowalski, director of industry analysis and business intelligence at the Consumer Technology Association.

For years, IKEA has toyed with using the Microsoft's HoloLens to allow customers to plan out a kitchen, bathroom or room redesign, while Lowe's implemented a pilot program in several stores in 2016. "The value that they bring is so far beyond what they can think of right now," Kowalski said. 

A troublesome history

Smart glasses initially hit the market as early as 2012, but most have relied on enterprise clients, with only a few temporarily targeting consumers. 

In 2013, Google released the first prototype of the Google Glass to a select group of consumers before going public in May 2014. Retailing at $1,500 a pair, the product fit few consumer price points and came under fire for potential privacy issues related to its connected camera; it's consumer model was discontinued in 2015, and the company found a place developing line for warehouse and manufacturing use.

The latest iteration geared toward the enterprise community was launched in 2019. Retailing at $999, the model comes equipped with voice activated applications can be managed from a mobile device.

Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2

Despite a slow integration into the consumer market, Covid-19 and the rise in remote work could accelerate smart glasses integration in health, medical and service fields. Vuzix recently announced they would partner with a medical technology company to assist with remote servicing during the pandemic.

Microsoft is also putting smart glasses to use in the defense sector. First available to consumers in 2019, the HoloLens glasses can overlay images and display computer programs. In 2019, the company won a $479 million contract to deploy 100,000 prototypes to the U.S. military hoping to improve soldier effectiveness, a move which came under harsh employee criticism.

The decision caused some concerns among employees who across the tech sectors have been more vocal in recent years as activists questioning some uses of their own technology. But Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella later defended the decision in an interview with CNN Business, citing that the company would not "withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy."

In 2016, Snap made its foray into the smart glasses market with Spectacles, a wearable product that allowed users to record videos to sync with their phones. But by 2017, several media outlets reported that the creator of Snapchat largely overestimated demand and less than half of buyers continued using the product within a month of purchase, internal company data obtained by Business Insider suggested. Though largely unsuccessful among consumers, the most recent iteration offers 3-D capabilities and retails for $380, a fraction of the price of its competitors.

A person holds up a pair of Snapchat Spectacles by Snap Inc. on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) during the company's initial public offering (IPO) in New York, March 2, 2017.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The price point for most smart glasses is still high, with many models upwards of $2,500. The new Vuzix glasses are expected to retail for $1,000; Lenovo has not yet detailed pricing on its ThinkReality A3 smart glasses. Offering consumer-friendly pricing for the products is one way to accelerate the rollout, but companies also need to ensure smart glasses are accompanied by easy-to-use apps and libraries of content that keep consumers occupied.

Without these vast content libraries released in tandem with smart-glasses, consumers are less likely to materialize the benefits of the product, said Allan Cook, a managing partner at Deloitte leading the digital reality practice.

"People think it's weird to be wearing AR or smart glasses," he said. "There's been blocks to the market in the past, but in 2021 we are going to see some dramatic increase."

Some experts thought 2020 would be "the year" of headsets due to the pandemic but it wasn't, and again in 2021, while there will be growth it will be off a low base and more of it continuing in the enterprise market, according to a Deloitte analysis. Overall spending on AR and VR headsets, software, and services, including purchases by consumers, rose in 2020 to $12 billion globally, which was up 50% from 2019, but below the pre-pandemic forecast of almost 80% growth. With the pandemic accelerating the opportunity to demonstrate their value, digital reality headsets may continue to gain ground after the pandemic ends due to a variety of other benefits, such as lower cost, greater safety, and better learning retention, but those benefits still show more appeal to and adoption among enterprise clients rather than consumers, according to the Deloitte outlook.

Big Tech's vision of the future

As technology companies push for greater consumer adoption, several tech giants beyond Google and Microsoft have announced plans for their own smart glass creations expected to hit the market in the next few years.

Facebook plans to release its smart glasses created with Luxottica's Ray-Ban. The social media giant is banking on the popular sunglasses brand style-sense to offer a fashion-forward model that will appeal to skeptical customers. In 2019, CNBC also previously reported that the company was working on an accompanying artificial intelligence voice assistant to rival Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri.

"I can't go into full product details yet, but they're really the next step on the road to augmented reality glasses," said CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a September livestream from Facebook Connect, where the company annually showcases virtual reality products.

Simultaneously, the company is working on Project Aria, an initiative that will distribute devices to employees to accumulate video, audio and location data, and ultimately help the company research and develop its smart glasses. Facebook first announced its Luxottica partnership in 2019.

Apple is reportedly working on its own AR glasses that would allow users to view maps, text messages and control Siri, expected to hit the market by 2023 at the earliest. Development on the product is shrouded in secrecy — like all of Apple's R&D, which the company never provides comment on. An augmented and virtual reality headset similar to Facebook's Oculus Rift is also reportedly in the works.

Wall Street is anxious for an Apple unveil, with Wedbush analyst Dan Ives putting Apple Glasses on his 2021 wish list and making a prediction that the company's first augmented reality eyewear — the result of many years of development in the labs of Cupertino — will be introduced at the company's WWDC 2021 developers conference, expected to be held in June.

Amazon has not announced plans for a full-scale augmented reality competitor, but it currently offers the Echo Frames, a pair of glasses enhanced with a speaker and built-in Amazon voice assistant.  

Jio, an India-based technology company that's backed by both Google and Facebook, announced Jio Glass last year, a mixed reality headset that connects to the internet through a cable connected to a smartphone. Although the company, part of India's largest conglomerate Reliance Industries, has yet to announce a price point, they've hinted that the product works with more than 25 applications and could benefit remote work and school.

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