Google is adding more fuel to the AR fire burning inside the company. The Information reports Google has struck a deal to buy Raxium, a “five-year-old startup that develops tiny light-emitting diodes for displays used in augmented and mixed reality devices.”
Raxium hasn’t released a commercial product, but its work revolves around Micro LEDs, which can make the kind of tiny displays AR devices need. Today, pretty much everyone buys their OLED display technology from Samsung, but Micro LEDs are expected to be the next big thing, and there’s no clear winner in that market yet. Apple has been investing in the technology for some time and bought a Micro LED startup in 2014, while Meta is partnering with a company called Plessey for Micro LED tech. The juggernaut Samsung is also interested in the market and is already selling Micro LED TVs.
Google’s latest wave of AR development involves job listings for an “Augmented Reality OS” that promises to reach “billions” of people and a “Project Iris” AR headset. The hardware division also bought a company called “North,” which made AR glasses that actually looked normal. That “Project Iris” headset is supposedly due out in 2024.
VR and AR contribute a lot to the Google Graveyard
Comparing Google’s AR gear to the company’s VR efforts over the past few years is fair, especially since VR was spearheaded by same team with the same leader, Clay Bavor, who is now VP of the “Google Labs” division. Google’s VR efforts from ~2014 to 2021 involved several acquisitions and hirings and a ton of rumors. Google met with chip vendors to make sure the features it needed would appear on future phones and laid out hardware requirements for OEMs. The company built VR support into Android with lots of hardware support and what you could call a “VR OS,” with a VR UI for the settings pages, a VR launcher, and a VR Play Store. Google brought VR support to YouTube and built the world-class “Tilt Brush” VR painting app.
But the result of all that work and a million years of rumors were a bunch of products that are no longer around today. Google Cardboard, a phone-powered VR headset made out of literal cardboard, lasted from 2014 to 2021. Google Daydream, a phone-powered plastic VR headset with a small controller, lasted from 2016 to 2019. Fully standalone Daydream VR headsets came out in 2018 and died with the rest of Daydream a year later. VR support was stripped out of Android in 2020, and Tilt Brush lasted from 2016-2021. Daydream and Cardboard were both initially rather well-received, but Google’s bar for product survival is very, very high.
There’s also the wave of AR/VR development that happened before all the Daydream/Cardboard stuff. Project Tango, which first brought AR to phones via myriad specialized sensors, lasted from 2014-2017. Tango eventually morphed into Android’s ARCore, which does similar AR effects using standard hardware. That effort is still up and running. Before all that, there was Google Glass, which wasn’t ever 3D augmented reality. Glass was more of a 2D smartphone-style interface that projected into a transparent lens in front of your eye. Glass insists it is still alive and still sells to enterprise consumers, but the consumer wing lasted from about 2012 to 2015.