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Facebook confirms it’s building augmented reality glasses – TechCrunch

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“Yeah! Well of course we’re working on it,” Facebook’s head of augmented reality Ficus Kirkpatrick told me when I asked him at TechCrunch’s AR/VR event in LA if Facebook was building AR glasses. “We are building hardware products. We’re going forward on this . . . We want to see those glasses come into reality, and I think we want to play our part in helping to bring them there.”

This is the clearest confirmation we’ve received yet from Facebook about its plans for AR glasses. The product could be Facebook’s opportunity to own a mainstream computing device on which its software could run after a decade of being beholden to smartphones built, controlled and taxed by Apple and Google.

This month, Facebook launched its first self-branded gadget out of its Building 8 lab, the Portal smart display, and now it’s revving up hardware efforts. For AR, Kirkpatrick told me, “We have no product to announce right now. But we have a lot of very talented people doing really, really compelling cutting-edge research that we hope plays a part in the future of headsets.”

There’s a war brewing here. AR startups like Magic Leap and Thalmic Labs are starting to release their first headsets and glasses. Microsoft is considered a leader thanks to its early HoloLens product, while Google Glass is still being developed for the enterprise. And Apple has acquired AR hardware developers like Akonia Holographics and Vrvana to accelerate development of its own headsets.

Mark Zuckerberg said at F8 2017 that AR glasses were 5 to 7 years away

Technological progress and competition seems to have sped up Facebook’s timetable. Back in April 2017, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “We all know where we want this to get eventually, we want glasses,” but explained that “we do not have the science or technology today to build the AR glasses that we want. We may in five years, or seven years.” He explained that “We can’t build the AR product that we want today, so building VR is the path to getting to those AR glasses.” The company’s Oculus division had talked extensively about the potential of AR glasses, yet similarly characterized them as far off.

But a few months later, a Facebook patent application for AR glasses was spotted by Business Insider that detailed using “waveguide display with two-dimensional scanner” to project media onto the lenses. Cheddar’s Alex Heath reports that Facebook is working on Project Sequoia that uses projectors to display AR experiences on top of physical objects like a chess board on a table or a person’s likeness on something for teleconferencing. These indicate Facebook was moving past AR research.

Facebook AR glasses patent application

Last month, The Information spotted four Facebook job listings seeking engineers with experience building custom AR computer chips to join the Facebook Reality Lab (formerly known as Oculus research). And a week later, Oculus’ Chief Scientist Michael Abrash briefly mentioned amidst a half-hour technical keynote at the company’s VR conference that “No off the shelf display technology is good enough for AR, so we had no choice but to develop a new display system. And that system also has the potential to bring VR to a different level.”

But Kirkpatrick clarified that he sees Facebook’s AR efforts not just as a mixed reality feature of VR headsets. “I don’t think we converge to one single device . . . I don’t think we’re going to end up in a Ready Player One future where everyone is just hanging out in VR all the time,” he tells me. “I think we’re still going to have the lives that we have today where you stay at home and you have maybe an escapist, immersive experience or you use VR to transport yourself somewhere else. But I think those things like the people you connect with, the things you’re doing, the state of your apps and everything needs to be carried and portable on-the-go with you as well, and I think that’s going to look more like how we think about AR.”

Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash makes predictions about the future of AR and VR at the Oculus Connect 5 conference

Oculus virtual reality headsets and Facebook augmented reality glasses could share an underlying software layer, though, which might speed up engineering efforts while making the interface more familiar for users. “I think that all this stuff will converge in some way maybe at the software level,” Kirkpatrick said.

The problem for Facebook AR is that it may run into the same privacy concerns that people had about putting a Portal camera inside their homes. While VR headsets generate a fictional world, AR must collect data about your real-world surroundings. That could raise fears about Facebook surveilling not just our homes but everything we do, and using that data to power ad targeting and content recommendations. This brand tax haunts Facebook’s every move.

Startups with a cleaner slate like Magic Leap and giants with a better track record on privacy like Apple could have an easier time getting users to put a camera on their heads. Facebook would likely need a best-in-class gadget that does much that others can’t in order to convince people it deserves to augment their reality.

You can watch our full interview with Facebook’s director of camera and head of augmented reality engineering Ficus Kirkpatrick from our TechCrunch Sessions: AR/VR event in LA:

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Apple just had the biggest holiday quarter in its history

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Enlarge / The back of the iPhone 13.

Samuel Axon

Neither a global pandemic nor a supply chain crunch can stop Apple, based on the company’s Q1 2022 earnings report. Released today, the report showed Apple smashing many of its sales records once again, with $123.9 billion in overall revenue and $34.6 billion in profit.

A lot of that money was driven by the iPhone 13, as this was the first full quarter since that product line’s launch. When we reviewed the iPhone 13 lineup, we wrote that it doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel with flashy new features, but it does give the people what they say they want: better cameras and more battery life.

Cameras and battery life seemed to resonate with buyers. iPhone revenue for the quarter was $71.63 billion, up 9 percent year-over-year. Also, Apple achieved a new record for smartphone market share in the critical China market: 23 percent. That made the company the top-selling smartphone brand in the country for the first time in years.

Apple’s services businesses (like Apple Music, Apple TV+, and iCloud) have been a major focus of expansion in recent years, and that expansion continues to pay off. Services revenue was up 24 percent to $19.52 billion during Q1. Apple reports that it has 785 million paying subscribers in total across all the services it offers. That’s 165 million more than last year.

Mac revenue grew 25 percent since last year to $10.85 billion. That growth is thanks mainly to consumer interest in the M1-driven models that offer notably better performance and power efficiency than previous Macs with Intel processors. On the other hand, the iPad slipped 14 percent compared to the same quarter last year.

The company’s catch-all category that includes other products like wearables and accessories grew to $14.7 billion, mostly on Apple Watch and AirPods sales.

All of these gains came despite an ongoing pandemic and, perhaps more critically in this instance, major supply issues. Supply chain constraints have led to exceptionally long wait times to receive a new MacBook Pro, for example. But Apple wasn’t as adversely affected by these problems as many other companies, in part because it was able to leverage its size and success to ensure that suppliers prioritized the components needed for its products.

Still, Apple estimates that it lost out on $6 billion in sales because of supply constraints. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that Apple expects supply to be less of an issue in the next quarter.

Apple still isn’t providing guidance to investors as to how it expects the next quarter to go, in contrast to Wall Street norms. The company stopped doing that in spring 2020, citing various pandemic-related uncertainties, and hasn’t said anything yet about when it might return to that practice.

As Apple continues to ship more and more iPhones, Macs, and wearables, its chief concern in the immediate future will be regulation. From right-to-repair to app store fairness movements, Apple is facing a great deal of criticism and government scrutiny, like many other big tech companies.

The company largely emerged victorious over Epic Games in a highly publicized legal battle over the future of the App Store. That wasn’t the only threat, however, and even that victory is not yet final as appeals move through the courts.

But barring a hypothetical court defeat or new regulations, it’s mostly business as usual at Apple despite the pandemic and supply chain woes—and business remains good.

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macOS 12.3 will break cloud-storage features used by Dropbox and OneDrive

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If you’re using either Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive to sync files on a Mac, you’ll want to pay attention to the release notes for today’s macOS 12.3 beta: the update is deprecating a kernel extension used by both apps to download files on demand. The extension means that files are available when you need them but don’t take up space on your disk when you don’t. Apple says that “both service providers have replacements for this functionality currently in beta.”

Both Microsoft and Dropbox started alerting users to this change before the macOS beta even dropped. Dropbox’s page is relatively sparse. The page notifies users that Dropbox’s online-only file functionality will break in macOS 12.3 and that a beta version of the Dropbox client with a fix will be released in March.

Microsoft’s documentation for OneDrive’s Files On-Demand feature is more detailed. It explains that Microsoft will be using Apple’s File Provider extensions for future Dropbox versions, that the new Files On-Demand feature will be on by default, and that Files On-Demand will be supported in macOS 12.1 and later.

The warning email that Dropbox sent to Mac users earlier this week.
Enlarge / The warning email that Dropbox sent to Mac users earlier this week.

Dropbox

In addition to integrating better with the Finder (also explained by Microsoft here), using modern Apple extensions should reduce the number of obnoxious permission requests each app generates. The extensions should also reduce the likelihood that a buggy or compromised kernel extension can expose your data or damage your system. But the move will also make those apps a bit less flexible—Microsoft says that the new version of Files On-Demand can’t be disabled. That might be confusing if you expect to have a full copy of your data saved to your disk even when you’re offline.

This isn’t the only time Dropbox and OneDrive have been behind the curve in supporting new macOS features. Both companies only released Apple Silicon versions of their clients within the last couple of months.

The betas for macOS 12.3 and iOS/iPadOS 15.4 add a handful of other notable features, after releases earlier this week that focused mostly on security improvements and bug-fixing. The macOS 12.3 beta adds support for Universal Control, the feature that allows you to seamlessly use multiple Macs or iPads together. Universal Control was announced back in June 2021 at WWDC and was briefly present in the initial run of Monterey betas before being removed almost entirely from the final release. The iOS and iPadOS 15.4 betas add support for FaceID that can be unlocked by users wearing a mask with no Apple Watch required. Two years into a pandemic is a bit late to be adding this feature, but late is better than never.

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Google relents: Legacy G Suite users will be able to migrate to free accounts

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There is hope for users of Google’s “legacy” free G Suite accounts. Last week, Google announced a brutal policy change—it would shut down the Google Apps accounts of users who signed up during the first several years when the service was available for free. Users who had a free G Suite account were given two options: start paying the per-user monthly fee by July 2022 or lose your account.

Naturally, this move led to a huge outcry outside (and apparently inside) Google, and now, the company seems to be backing down from most of the harsher terms of the initial announcement. First, Google is launching a survey of affected G Suite users—apparently, the company is surprised by how many people this change affected. Second, it’s promising a data-migration option (including your content purchases) to a consumer account before the shutdown hits.

Google Apps (today this service is called “G Suite or Google Workspace”) allows users to have a Google account with a custom domain, so your email ends in your website address rather than “@gmail.com.” It’s typically used for businesses. The basic tier of G Suite was free from 2006 to 2012—anyone could sign up for a Google account with a custom domain, and apparently, a lot of geeks did this for friends, families, and other non-business uses. Google stopped offering free G Suite accounts in 2012, but it was previously unthinkable that Google would go after its most enthusiastic, early-adopter users and kick them off the service. You trust Google and store a ton of data on a Google account, so the accounts are forever, right?

Users being hit by the shutdown faced two options: either suddenly start paying for their accounts, which had been free for years, or lose access to core Workspace apps like Gmail. Users who didn’t want to pay could only export data with Google Takeout, which would download some account data that would become a bunch of cumbersome, local files. Takeout was a terrible option because it makes it difficult to get your data back in the cloud, and you can’t export things like purchased content from Google Play or YouTube.

If you used your G Suite account like a regular consumer account and bought a bunch of digital content from Google, you could be out hundreds or thousands of dollars in purchases. With no way to get all the data out of a Google account in a seamless and easy way, Google’s “pay up or lose your account” options felt like data extortion.

The billing section of admin.google.com will tell you what kind of G Suite account you have.
Enlarge / The billing section of admin.google.com will tell you what kind of G Suite account you have.

Lee Hutchinson

The support page detailing the shutdown has quietly been updated (for some reason, Google is not making a big deal of the changes yet). First, if (and only if) you’re signed in with a free G Suite account, you’ll see a link to this survey, which is aimed at free G Suite admins with 10 users or fewer using the service for “non-business” purposes. Google says users filling out the survey will receive “updates on more options for your non-business legacy account in the coming months.” It’s a sign that Google had no idea how many people this change would affect, and now, the company wants to hear from you.

The ideal situation, if the custom domain option has to shut down, would be the option to port your free G Suite account to a consumer Google account, with all the purchases, data, email, and other features intact. You would naturally have to pick a new account name and email address, but minimal disruption to other services would seem like the least Google could do, and it sounds like the company is building something like that. There’s now a new section on the support page titled: “If I don’t want to upgrade to a paid subscription, can I transfer my data?”

It reads:

In the coming months, we’ll provide an option for you to move your non-Google Workspace paid content and most of your data to a no-cost option. This new option won’t include premium features like custom email or multi-account management. You’ll be able to evaluate this option prior to July 1, 2022 and prior to account suspension. We’ll update this article with details in the coming months.

This is the option everyone has been asking for, as it specifically references “non-Google Workspace paid content,” which presumably would mean all your app, game, and media purchases made through Google Play and YouTube. The support article doesn’t offer any additional details yet, only saying to wait for further updates, but Google promises the option will be ready before July, which is when the account disruptions start happening.

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