Poor Google. The company is about to get lapped in the AR/VR space by Apple’s Vision Pro headset, despite dabbling in the AR/VR/XR space for over a decade now. A new report from Business Insider details how Google has fallen so far behind, telling the familiar modern-Google story of a rudderless company with constantly changing priorities and absentee leadership. The report describes employees who were “frustrated” at Google’s lack of progress when the Vision Pro was unveiled and provides a glimpse of what Google’s current (again, constantly changing) plans for an AR product are.
Google’s wheel-spinning in AR and VR is up there with instant messaging and payment platforms as some of the worst-run projects at the company. Hardware projects Google Glass, Cardboard, Daydream, Tango, and Iris have all come and gone. Software projects like ARCore, a VR UI for Android, the painting app Tilt Brush, and several AR Google Maps features are all dead or haven’t gotten much traction. Acquisitions of companies North and Raxium haven’t produced any results. Google’s 12,000 layoffs this year have cut into some of these projects, and AR leadership has been rocky, too, with Google Head of AR/VR Clay Bavor leaving Google in February. A few months later, Google AR OS Senior Director of Engineering Mark Lucovsky quit the company due to “the recent changes in AR leadership and Google’s unstable commitment and vision,” and apparently this was part of a larger talent exodus.
The BI report details how Google’s latest dead project, Iris, “was beset by a constantly shifting strategy and lack of focus from senior leadership.” After “conversations with seven current and former employees close to Google’s AR efforts,” Business Insider quotes a few of those anonymous employees, with one saying, “Every six months there was a major pivot in the program.” At one point, Google was working on a pair of custom silicon chips for the glasses’ display and compute power and then gave up on the idea of custom chips. That work was apparently near completion, with one person saying, “I think it’s weird when you convince yourselves you need to build custom silicon, and then you go and do that—and then flush it down the toilet.”
Display problems led the team to switch from regular eyeglasses to sunglasses and then back again, and the team couldn’t settle on a color or monochrome display. Google showed off a pair of Iris glasses at Google I/O that could translate spoken language, then quickly canned the idea. You might think Bavor leaving in February would be good, considering how little traction the AR division managed in the marketplace, but apparently the executive’s departure created a “state of chaos” in the division.
Google’s next AR pivot is a partnership with Samsung, another company that has dabbled in AR/VR for years yet has no current product line. Google, Samsung, and Qualcomm have already vaguely announced an Apple-fighting mixed-reality partnership in February. Plans to actually launch a headset were reportedly delayed in the wake of the Vision Pro unveiling due to the headset not being competitive. The new launch target is sometime around summer 2024, but the report says that “some employees are skeptical [that] will be enough time to launch a product that will wow the public.”
According to the report, Samsung wants to follow its usual strategy and “build a headset device similar to Apple’s Vision Pro.” The project is apparently codenamed “Moohan,” and if you couldn’t already guess from this lineup of companies, it will run Android. Despite acquiring hardware companies like the Micro-LED manufacturer Raxiom and smart glasses-maker North, Google now wants to “pivot to software” and follow the Android model.
The partnership with Samsung makes Moohan the most likely project to actually hit the market, but Google still has two other competing XR projects. Raxiom also is apparently still around and works under Paul Greco, Magic Leap’s former chief technology officer. Iris’ software work has moved to “a new team” and is being turned into a software project codenamed “Betty” that Google wants to pitch to other manufacturers. Samsung doesn’t want any of these other parts of Google or other hardware competitors to be privy to its Vision Pro clone, so the three teams are all firewalled off from each other and have to compete for resources.
One current employee described the situation as “a weird bureaucratic mess.”