It's only January, but 2022 is already shaping up to be a big year for augmented and virtual reality. It was one of the most prevalent themes at CES, which featured AR and VR announcements from Sony, Microsoft and Qualcomm (among others). Apple is also rumored to finally make its anticipated move into the smart headset space this or next year.
Yet, one company has been unusually quiet on the AR and VR front in recent years: Samsung.
The South Korean tech giant made a name for itself early on primarily through its line of Gear VR smartphone-based headsets, which launched in 2014. But companies like Meta, Microsoft and Snap have made bigger strides in the past couple of years.
Samsung has a reputation for experimenting with new technologies early and often, typically before other major competitors like Apple. Its decision to enter the Android smartphone market early -- more than a decade ago -- also helped it become the world's largest mobile device maker in terms of market share. That makes Samsung's relative absence from the smart glasses discourse all the more puzzling.
Although it will likely be a long time before smart glasses become useful enough to earn a place in our everyday lives, the industry seems eager to get there. This year kicked off with a slew of announcements at CES, which included a partnership between Microsoft and Qualcomm to make custom chips for AR glasses and a glasses concept from TCL that look like an evolved version of Google Glass. Sony also teased the second-generation PlayStation VR, although it didn't reveal a price or launch date.
We also saw some pretty significant developments in the AR and VR space throughout 2021, perhaps the biggest of which was Facebook's rebranding as Meta. The change reflects its larger goal to expand beyond social networking and focus on building the "metaverse," a blanket term for digital communities which also encompasses AR and VR.
Meta announced its Project Nazaré concept AR smart glasses last year, too, and released its first pair of connected spectacles: Ray-Ban Stories. Those shades don't have AR functionality and are designed primarily for taking hands-free photos, but they could still be a step toward future smart glasses.
Meta is also currently leading the VR market thanks to its popular Oculus VR line. The company accounts for almost 75% of the market for AR and VR headsets, according to the International Data Corporation.
Snapchat parent Snap also debuted in 2021 its first wireless AR spectacles, which can display 3D effects over real surroundings and track hand movements. These glasses aren't available for the general public without an application and are primarily aimed at developers. But Snap has already released three generations of its photo-taking Snapchat Spectacles, a signal that it's serious about wearable tech.
Microsoft, meanwhile, was one of the early players in the AR and VR market with its first HoloLens AR headset back in 2015. It launched the second-generation model in 2019 and added 5G support in 2020.
Apple hasn't released VR or AR eyewear yet, but rumors that it could launch a headset this year are already making waves. The iPhone maker is expected to announce an AR and VR-capable headset mostly geared towards developers in 2022, which could lay the groundwork for a more ambitious pair of consumer-friendly AR glasses in the future, according to Bloomberg. But Apple may delay the headset's debut by several months because of development issues, possibly pushing it to 2023, according to a more recent Bloomberg report.
While we don't know when or if we'll ever see an Apple AR headset, CEO Tim Cook has been vocal about his enthusiasm for augmented reality. He told journalist Kara Swisher in April 2021 that he's seeing AR "take off" when used with phones and that the technology is critical to the company's future. The company has long offered tools for developers to build better AR apps for the iPhone in its ARKit platform, but it recently started building depth-sensing Lidar sensors into certain iPhone and iPad Pro models, too.
Samsung, meanwhile, hasn't released a new version of its Gear VR headset since 2017. But that doesn't mean it's been completely quiet; the company is seemingly focusing on different executions of AR. At CES 2022, for example, one Samsung concept showed how AR could be incorporated into a car's windshield to display the weather, tire pressure levels, maps and other information. The company also worked with the 3D avatar and social app Zepeto to create a virtual home filled with its products during CES, an effort to prove it's paying attention to the metaverse hype.
Meanwhile, an older Samsung concept from CES 2020 involved pairing AR glasses with an exoskeleton to provide virtual workout experiences. And back in 2017, it showcased a computer glasses concept called Monitorless at Mobile World Congress.
Still, it's been a while since Samsung has made announcements around concrete AR or VR products, while companies like Meta and Snap are moving full steam ahead. But that doesn't mean Samsung isn't thinking about it. Two leaked videos from 2021 suggested Samsung is working on a pair of AR glasses that could project a giant screen before your eyes or place 3D virtual objects in your surroundings.
Samsung said its research team "continues to develop related core technologies for smart devices including AR glasses, next-generation wearables and more" when CNET asked about its plans for AR and VR products. The company also pointed to the website for Samsung's research division, which mentions AR glasses specifically and discusses the technology's potential benefits and industrywide challenges.
"AR glasses are expected by many experts as a next-generation IT device because they have the advantages of large-screen immersiveness compared to smartphones, unfettered freedom of not having to hold it, immediacy of not having to take it out of one's pocket, and a truly private display," Samsung Research's website reads.
Samsung isn't usually one to sit on the sidelines when it comes to emerging technologies. It launched its first modern smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, back in 2013 when the industry was still new and wearables were scarce. Apple didn't launch the first-generation Apple Watch until 2015, by comparison.
The story is similar for other technologies like curved screens and foldable smartphones. Samsung announced the Galaxy Round in 2013, which had dramatic curves along its sides, long before it integrated rounded edges into its more recent Galaxy phones.
Samsung was also among the first major companies to release a smartphone with a foldable screen in 2019 with the Galaxy Z Fold, a phone that's already on its third generation. Years before we had the Galaxy Z Fold or Galaxy Z Flip, Samsung also showcased its flexible display technology prototypes during events. It's still cranking out new concepts, as we saw at CES 2022.
The rest of the industry hasn't quite caught up with Samsung when it comes to foldable phones. Motorola, for example, has launched two versions of its foldable Razr, the last of which debuted in 2020, while Samsung has already released several foldables. Huawei, another early front-runner in the foldable space, only sells its flexible Mate X2 phone in China. Samsung, meanwhile, said it sold four times as many foldable phones in 2021 as it did in 2020.
Being early is a strategy that's paid off for Samsung in the broader smartphone space beyond foldables and in the smartwatch market. Samsung is the global leader in smartphone shipments, according to Counterpoint Research, and the second-largest player in the wearable device market, says the International Data Corporation.
Showing up early has also given Samsung the flexibility to experiment, see what customers respond to and incorporate that feedback into future products. Take the Galaxy Round, Samsung's curved screen phone from 2013, as an example. That phone never caught on, but maybe it wasn't supposed to.
Instead, the Galaxy Round helped pave the way for Samsung's later phone designs with more subtle curves, like the Galaxy S10 series. Samsung's early bet on larger-screened smartphones with the original Galaxy Note in 2011 not only influenced its own direction, but also helped usher in an industry-wide shift to bigger phones. And who knows if we would have the Galaxy Watch 4 without the original Galaxy Gear, which was deemed clunky and expensive nearly 10 years ago.
That we haven't heard much from Samsung on the smart glasses front makes me wonder if it'll skip that experimental phase and keep its earlier iterations behind closed doors. Of course, that's if Samsung is working on smart glasses at all, which is a big assumption.
And more broadly, smart glasses face challenges that must be solved before they can become as mainstream as smartphones or smartwatches. Those include improving battery life, phone compatibility and working easily with eyeglass prescriptions.
Does Samsung want to risk entering the market early, or wait out what could be a years-long process? Or could they launch simpler glasses in the meantime, similar to audio glasses from Amazon and Bose? Samsung is clearly thinking about some of these questions, as it says on its research website. What we don't know is when those efforts will materialize into a real product, if at all.
Who knows how long Samsung can afford to wait when companies like Meta and Microsoft are pushing forward. Those tech giants missed out on the smartphone boom for the most part and are seemingly determined to prevent the smart glasses market from becoming yet another two-horse race between Apple and Samsung. But the AR glasses landscape is still conspicuously missing some of the biggest players in the consumer tech space -- Samsung being one of them -- and that absence looms large.