As the augmented reality (AR) market prepares to catch a second wind thanks to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), another tech titan may be preparing to jump in: Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN). The e-commerce giant is now reportedly working on a set of Alexa-powered smart glasses that could be used as a foundation for an AR platform, according to The Financial Times.
The smart glasses would connect wirelessly to a smartphone, and bear traditional aesthetics that don't attempt to look overly futuristic (Google Glass' futuristic design was somewhat alienating), according to the report. It may use a "bone-conduction audio system" that would let the user hear Alexa without headphones. Smart AR glasses could expand Amazon's smart home strategy, and Amazon is also working on a home security camera system. (On a related note, Alphabet subsidiary Nest just announced a handful of smart home security products this morning.)
The report says that one or both of Amazon's rumored products could potentially launch "before the end of the year."
Amazon has been exploring smart glasses and AR for years
The report isn't all that surprising, as Amazon was granted a patent for smart AR glasses way back in 2015, which described "head-mounted display (HMD) systems" and included illustrations like this one:
Beyond wearable devices, Amazon has also explored other AR applications that could be delivered without clunky headgear, like using projectors. The New York Times reported earlier this year that Amazon was even considering an AR-based furniture store.
However, despite Amazon's strong track record of merciless competition and disruption, the company has a mixed history with producing compelling hardware and creating platforms. Fire tablets, which piggyback on the Android platform, are largely successful due to low price points. Amazon has a hit with its Alexa-powered Echo lineup, which is certainly becoming a platform in its own right, but the Fire Phone was an unqualified disaster.
Alexa-powered smart glasses could be a successful evolution of its smart home ambitions, but it seems very unlikely that the e-commerce giant could create a viable AR platform. Besides, consumers don't appear to be anywhere close to ready to adopting a product category like smart glasses, which is why Apple and Facebook are both effectively using the smartphone as a path to AR, with Apple integrating AR tools deep into iOS 11 and Facebook hoping to leverage the camera as a starting point.
That's not to say that Amazon can't take advantage of AR as it continues to aggressively push deeper into physical retail; AR has very promising applications in physical retail and e-commerce, in some ways bridging the offline/online gap. Rather, Amazon will face an uphill battle if it's hoping to create, maintain, and operate an AR computing platform.
If these products are to be unveiled by year's end, at least investors won't have to wait too much longer to see what Amazon has in the pipeline.