March 11, 2021
Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week, we are taking a closer look at what's in store for Sonos and the challenges Apple may face building AR contact lenses.
And please mark your calendars: On March 18, Protocol will be hosting a live event on the state of VR in 2021, featuring Baobab Studios CEO Maureen Fan, Survios co-founder and president Nathan Burba, HP global head of virtual reality for location based entertainment Joanna Popper and Venture Reality Fund general partner Tipatat Chennavasin. Join us; RSVP here.
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Smart speaker maker Sonos introduced its latest device, the $169 Sonos Roam, this week. The company also held an investor day Tuesday, outlining its financials for the rest of 2021 and beyond. Sonos doesn't usually share details about upcoming products and initiatives until it is ready to launch them, but remarks made by executives this week, including a conversation I had with Sonos CEO Patrick Spence, give us a good idea of what's next for the company.
"Ultimately, health concerns and mask policies will disappear, but the longer they last, the more consumers will become accustomed to watching movies at home at little to no incremental cost." —Lightshed Partners issued a drastic 12-month price target of $0.01 for AMC Theatres' stock this week.
"Lockdowns and other safety measures may have helped galvanize the End of Ownership." —Subscription SaaS company Zuora, which admittedly has a vested interest in a transition from ownership-focused to subscription business models, in its nonetheless noteworthy End of Ownership report.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the most-discussed and least-understood law governing the modern internet. This event will delve into the future of Section 230 and how to change the law without compromising the internet as we know it. Join Protocol's Emily Birnbaum and Issie Lapowsky in conversation with Senator Mark Warner. This event is presented by Internet Association.
Earlier this week, TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicted that Apple may introduce AR contact lenses in the 2030s. Obviously, any prediction for what Apple may do a decade from now should be taken with more than just a grain of salt.
Then again, Kuo has a pretty good track record for predicting future Apple products, and we do know that Apple has been working on AR glasses. So it's conceivable that the company may also be looking to shrink down the technology powering these glasses a lot further for future iterations, and eventually release a product that promises what Kuo called "invisible computing."
This made me wonder: How would Apple's AR contact lenses actually work? What would be the biggest challenges, and what are some ways to deal with them? Luckily, we don't have to resort to science fiction for answers. I recently talked to Mojo Vision product and marketing SVP Steve Sinclair, whose company is building exactly what Apple is supposedly aiming for.
Mojo Vision has been working on AR contact lenses since 2015. "The first 3.5 years was really a science project," Sinclair said. Things have gotten more serious since: Mojo Vision has raised around $160 million, with funders including HP, LG, Dolby and Google's Gradient Ventures.
The tech is actually working — sort of. Mojo Vision has built a simple prototype capable of displaying monochrome images, and has shown it off to select industry insiders. Sinclair told me that he is among the 15 or so people in the world who has actually worn it. Others have only been able to see Mojo's custom display mounted atop a lens without putting it into their eye.
The idea behind these lenses is intriguing. The Mojo Lens, as the startup calls its product-in-progress, makes use of a 0.48mm microLED display. That's super tiny, but since it is so close to your eye, it equals a much bigger screen — just like a phone screen can compete with a TV if you hold it close enough to your face.
Given that it's right in the center of your eye, the image would always be in your field of view, and the display would still work even with eyelids shut. "You can close your eyes and basically go into VR," Sinclair said. And being so tiny, the screen would need a lot less power than AR glasses.
Even so, AR contact lenses still need batteries, which would have to be integrated into the lens itself. There's also a need for special antennas to provide connectivity, either to your phone or a dedicated companion device, and a bunch of other chips. All of this would be super tiny, and be in your eye.
Batteries in your eye: Is that safe? Good question, and one that Mojo Vision, and possibly Apple, will have to have a good answer for. Contact lenses are considered medical devices, so any such AR product would have to be approved by the FDA.
It may take years before we get there — if it works at all. Mojo Vision has not shared a target date for its first product yet, and Sinclair was pretty open about the fact that the whole tech could still fail altogether. Even if we do see AR lenses from Mojo or Apple within the next decade or so, they may look less like something Hollywood may imagine, and more like Google Glass or North's Focals. Think assistive, not immersive.
AR will be a thing, one way or another. The tech constraints could also mean that AR glasses will actually offer a better experience, at least for the foreseeable future. Sinclair didn't seem too worried about competition from other headgear, arguing that in today's analog eyewear world, both glasses and contacts exist as complementary solutions.
Plus, tech that's being developed for AR glasses could ultimately benefit AR contact lenses, and greater acceptance of AR in general may help lift all boats. "It only helps us if the glasses side of things tasks off," he said. For a company like Apple, this could also mean that it may as well invest into R&D for AR contacts, even if they're more complicated to make than AR glasses. To stick with the tides and boats metaphor: If you believe the future platform war will happen on waters, you might as well build an armada.
A quick update on my latest pandemic hobby, which involves setting up a Raspberry Pi to stream music from my record player to my Sonos speakers. I got the Pi and a special USB audio preamp, and I even managed to find an extra keyboard and mouse hidden away in some drawer. The one thing that's missing is luck, or perhaps a better understanding of Linux audio issues, because I can't get this thing to work. Anyone interested in trading a gently-used mini computer for a sourdough starter?
Thanks for reading — see you next week!