May 31, 2016 — It seems 2016 has turned into a battle that many never saw coming. No, not the battle of the overpriced smartwatch of dubious usefulness, nor even the battle for supremacy between instant messaging and “traditional” social media like Facebook. No, 2016 is the year of the ugly goggles - some worth billions, some powered by phones others seemingly powered by magic, witchcraft and no small sprinkle of PR horseshit. And 2017 promises to be even more intense with the hype machine buzzing like a fridge.

Since 2014 when Facebook dropped a cool $2 billion on a fledgling virtual reality headset company the world has been trying to figure out what it all meant. Were we destined to spend our time staring at digital avatars that make everyone look like a Wii Character? Enclosed in our solitary worlds while Zuckerberg’s robot slaves counted out his megadollars? Was the future of shopping and social media really going to spent staring at what is essentially a cheap TV strapped to your face with fabric with some overpriced Carl Zeiss lenses in it? Will anyone think about the kids for godsake?

Much like anything that is labelled by Silicon Valley press and insiders as the “future”, “game-changing”, or “next generation” it is often five parts hyperbole with one part truth. And it’s that one part that interests most people who have been in the industry long enough to understand what is happening and how it is all going to play out.

Firstly, there’s a good chance that Facebook likely blew $2 billion dollars on a potential also-ran which has no technological advantage over an increasingly huge range of rivals with race to the bottom commoditisation the only result. Secondly, Oculus is already behind given the distribution of hardware/users in place by people like Sony Playstation and Steam. Hardware capability is, at least for the next 24 months, a key factor. Thirdly, content will be the defining characteristic of any defining platform as it is required to demonstrate the application. But more importantly none of it matters because ultimately it will be “ugly goggles” of an entirely different variety that will win the day.

Back in 2013, rumours swirled about a startup in stealth mode that was focusing not on the belle de jour of VR, but on AR glasses. In short, instead of total immersion in a piece of 360 degree content it was about overlaying digital on a real world view. As a business, this rang a lot of bells for our team. We had spent two years creating campaigns which focused on the same approach. Except there was one huge difference: you needed to hold an iPad. And that was annoying.

Forget Google Glass, which was effectively overlaying your email count on a pair of glasses and was a very poor attempt at AR. What Magic Leap were working on was an outward looking device. A device that looked at the world around it and then provided real time information, media, and at the risk of buying into the hype machine “holograms”. It depth mapped in the way Project Tango could, it rendered content live through engines such as Unity. It was a cool, real world gaming device to the uninitiated - it was a “user interface for the world” to the rest of us that could transform education, training, gaming, entertainment and more. And then, we waited. Until something a little odd happened…

Microsoft suddenly got its mojo back.

In the post Steve Ballmer world at Microsoft, the new CEO Satya Nadella scooped up an untested, likely VERY unfinished prototype and pushed it into the limelight. And with it reintroduced the behemoth to a world it used to inhabit quote well: emerging technology.

Hololens suddenly made Oculus look a little clunky and a little less sexy. It was bright, cable free, “holographic”, usable across a massive range of industries and there was a physical product in front of an audience. Demos were patchy but coherent and the potential was clearly huge and developers knew it. It mapped its space like Project Tango, it rendered content live through engines such as Unity, in fact it felt a lot like Magic Leap but two years ahead and development kits shipping. Magic Leap suddenly had to drop all of the silly, mysterious press conferences and start talking about a real world product because they knew that Microsoft are out to eat their lunch for them.

Fast forward and we sit today with everyone focusing on the wrong battle. It’s not about Oculus and HTC or Samsung and Huawei, it’s not even about the brave new world of people living in anonymous rooms as per the Zuckerberg vision and it’s certainly not about SnapChat thank God.

It will be a battle between Magic Leap and Hololens and whoever decides to join. It will be about who can create a wearable that can compellingly deliver a “user interface for the world” in the neatest, subtlest way possible. The rest will be left in the dust.