Mark Zuckerberg has a grandiose vision for the metaverse, and he hopes that one day you will, too — albeit through a pair of augmented reality glasses.

AR goggles, according to Zuckerberg, are a “holy grail” device that will “redefine our relationship with technology,” similar to the introduction of smartphones. They served as the connective tissue for his metaverse pitch, allowing people to play games and work with virtual humans in Star Trek-style, during the special effects-laden video announcing Facebook’s corporate rebranding to Meta last October. Zuckerberg wore them while fencing with a hologram at one point. “Don’t be afraid to stab,” joked his virtual sparring partner.

Zuckerberg may have high hopes for smart glasses, but the technology’s near-term reality is far less rosy. The demonstrations during Zuckerberg’s Meta presentation, such as playing virtual chess with someone’s avatar on a real table, were not based on any working hardware or software. And, for the time being, Meta does not have a working, wearable prototype of its planned AR glasses, only a stationary demonstration that sits on a table.

Image: Meta

Nonetheless, Zuckerberg has lofty ambitions for when his high-tech glasses will become a reality. Employees are racing against the clock to complete the first generation by 2024, and they are already planning a lighter, more advanced design for 2026, followed by the third version in 2028. The information, which provides the first comprehensive look at Meta’s AR hardware ambitions, was shared with The Verge by people familiar with the roadmap who was not authorized to speak publicly. A Meta spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

People familiar with Zuckerberg’s thinking say that the push for AR glasses and Facebook’s rebranding to Meta is motivated by Zuckerberg’s desire to recast the company he founded as innovative. A series of privacy and content moderation scandals have tarnished the social network’s reputation, undermining employee morale and faith in leadership. Regulators are attempting to dismantle the company and limit its personalized advertising business. And among its Silicon Valley peers, it has earned a reputation as a ruthless imitator.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tries out VR glove.FACEBOOK

If the AR glasses and other futuristic hardware Meta is developing become popular, they could cast the company, and thus Zuckerberg, in a new light. “Zuck’s ego is intertwined with [the glasses],” a former project employee tells me. “He’s hoping for an iPhone moment.”

Meta’s CEO also sees the AR glasses, dubbed Project Nazare, as a way to get out from under the thumb of Apple and Google, which together dictate the terms that apps like Facebook have to abide by on mobile phones. The first version of Nazare is designed to work independently from a mobile phone with the assistance of a wireless, phone-shaped device that offloads parts of the computing required for the glasses to operate. A marquee feature will be the ability to communicate and interact with holograms of other people through the glasses, which Zuckerberg believes will, over time, provide people with a more immersive, compelling experience than the video calling that exists today.

Despite having already spent billions on developing its AR glasses, Meta internally expects sales of the first version, which will be aimed at early adopters and developers, to be in the low tens of thousands. The price has yet to be determined, but given that the AR glasses bill of materials is in the thousands of dollars, the device will almost certainly be more expensive than the company’s $299 Quest VR headset. The cost will put Zuckerberg’s willingness to subsidize the price of the hardware to encourage adoption to the test — a competitive strategy aimed in part at undercutting the margins enjoyed by other players such as Apple.

Aside from Nazare, a previously unknown pair of cheaper smart glasses codenamed Hypernova are also planned for 2024. Nazare is designed to work without a smartphone, but Hypernova will pair with a nearby phone to show incoming messages and other notifications on a smaller, heads-up display, similar to the North smart glasses Google acquired two years ago.

Meta, along with Nazare, Hypernova, and future versions of the Ray-Ban camera-equipped glasses it recently introduced, hopes to sell tens of millions of smart glasses by the end of this decade, according to its VP of AR, Alex Himel.

(AFP via Getty Images)

It’s unclear whether or not people will find AR glasses useful in the coming years. Similar products from Microsoft, Snap, and others are still in the early stages of development. And Meta’s stakes couldn’t be higher. Its division producing metaverse hardware and related software has grown to approximately 18,000 employees, costing the company $10 billion in just one year. Meta has aggressively poached talent from Microsoft, Apple, Google, and others to build the glasses and future VR hardware, driving up the price of talent across the industry.

Zuckerberg has stated that he intends to increase spending on AR and VR hardware in the coming years, an enormous bet made at a time when his company is under pressure from all sides. Meta’s stock has taken a beating as its social media business has slowed and younger users have flocked to competitors such as TikTok. Antitrust scrutiny has essentially ruled out large acquisitions that have previously fueled growth, such as the purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp. And, having crippled Meta’s core ad business with recent iOS tracking changes, Apple is gearing up to launch an assault on Zuckerberg’s hardware strategy as well, beginning with a high-end mixed reality headset this year and eventually its own AR glasses.

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Since Nazare was taken out of research in 2018 under the internal codename Orion, Zuckerberg has taken a keen interest in the project. “It’s like the eye of Sauron,” one former team member compares it to in Lord of the Rings, referring to the all-seeing eye. (Zuckerberg recently admitted in a podcast that employees occasionally use the phrase to describe his intense involvement in a project.)

Zuckerberg has insisted that the first version of Nazare provides a full AR experience, complete with 3D graphics, a wide field of view, and a socially acceptable design. The team had hoped for it to have a 70-degree field of view — far wider than what’s currently available — but that goal is unlikely to be met. The current design of the glasses is reminiscent of Superman’s black frames when he disguises himself as Clark Kent. They weigh 100 grams, which is roughly four times the weight of a standard pair of glasses.

While Meta is aiming for a 2024 ship, there is no guarantee that Nazare will meet that goal. Its release date has already been pushed back several times. The product experience is still being worked on, particularly on the software side. An effort to build a custom microkernel operating system for the device based on a version of Google’s open-source Fuchsia OS was canceled at the end of last year, owing in part to the fact that it would not be ready in time for 2024. (The Information previously reported on the decision to abandon the microkernel OS.) For the first version of the AR glasses, Meta is pursuing a version built on top of Android, similar to what powers the company’s current Quest VR headset.

Nazare will not be a mainstream device, at least not right away. The current battery life is only four hours, and the glasses are designed to be used primarily indoors. Even though it will be some time before the glasses sell in large quantities, Zuckerberg has spared no expense. The displays are driven by high-priced custom waveguides and microLED projectors. The first version will include eye-tracking and a front-facing camera, as well as stereo audio embedded in the frame. Employees are collaborating with Asian semiconductor fabs to develop custom chips for the planned roadmap for the second half of this decade.

The most futuristic aspect of the first versions of both Nazare and Hypernova is a wrist device Meta plans to bundle with the glasses for controlling them, hypothetically, with the wearer’s mind — something that will almost certainly be the company’s next major privacy hurdle. The wristband measures electrical pulses in the neurons of the arm, essentially creating the effect of a phantom limb that the wearer can use to interact with the glasses. As a result, someone can essentially think to the type or control a virtual interface, which Meta believes will help people interact with smart glasses that lack a touchscreen, mouse, or keyboard.

Everyone I’ve spoken with who has tried a prototype of Meta’s band says it’s one of the most impressive tech demos they’ve ever seen. If it works on a large enough scale, the company believes it could be the next mouse and keyboard. One of the main goals has been to get the EMG to work through the display and other technology built into the wristband. According to one former senior Meta employee, “if CTRL-Labs works, none of this other stuff should matter.”

In the near future, Meta intends to launch its first smartwatch as early as this year. While the first and second generations will not include CTRL-Labs technology, the third generation will, in order to coincide with the debut of Nazare and Hypernova in 2024. According to The Information, a second version of the company’s smart glasses with Ray-Ban is also in the works. Meta sold approximately 120,000 pairs of Ray-Ban glasses from September to December last year, falling short of its initial goal of 300,000. On the VR side, a higher-end headset codenamed Cambria with pass-through video capable of blending the real and virtual worlds is being readied for later this year, ahead of a similar device Apple is planning to release.

As Zuckerberg’s involvement with Nazare has grown and the project has become more of a priority, the team has seen some turnover, with recent heads of product, design, and software leaving. He has placed long-serving company executives in key positions, reporting to CTO Andrew Bosworth. Alex Himel, the VP of AR who oversees all Bosworth glasses products, has been with the company for 13 years. Two other senior leaders on the team are hardware engineering head Caitlin Kalinowski, who recently moved over from running hardware for Oculus, and former Microsoft executive Don Box, who now runs software engineering for the glasses.

Even though Zuckerberg has already staked his claim to the metaverse, it will be a long time before AR glasses become popular. “You really have to be a missionary to see this through,” someone involved with Nazare says. “It will take a long time.”