I have had a chance to work on speech and voice projects since I first interacted with Kaifu Lee at Apple who, in the early 1990s, was brought in to research voice and speech recognition for what would have been used in Apple’s Newton. Not long after it became clear Newton did not have any real legs, Microsoft lured him away from Apple to head up Microsoft’s first serious work on voice and speech recognition.
In the 25 years or so since that time, voice and speech recognition has evolved a great deal and is now used in all types of applications. With the addition of Artificial Intelligence applied to voice, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and others, have now been pushing their voice solutions as a platform and new user interface that helps them interact with customers and provide new types of apps and services.
Recently, Amazon opened up the Alexa voice interface to hardware and software vendors to add a voice UI with direct links to Amazons’s apps and services. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Now and Microsoft’s Cortana are also used as voice UIs that work with third party products and are tied back to each company’s services or dedicated applications. In this sense, voice has become an important new platform for companies to innovate on and AI in voice is a viable platform to use when building new apps and services.
Although AI and voice as a platform will continue to be important, I sense a real shift — AR will soon become the most significant new platform for innovation relatively soon.
PokeMon Go introduced AR to a broad consumer audience and the tech world took note. Once they started to put their strategic thinking caps on, they immediately realized the idea of integrating virtual images, video, and information on top of real world settings has a lot of potential.
To date, most AR is in games like PokeMon Go and apps like SnapChat. But the idea of AR becoming an actual platform within an OS, which could drive a host of innovative apps and services, is just around the corner.
The most likely platform for AR will develop on smartphones first and eventually extend to some type of glasses or goggles as an extension of the smartphone’s user interface. But, for the next few years, AR will be introduced and integrated into the smartphone experience and make it possible to blend virtual worlds into the real world.
Google already has an Android platform for AR called Tango and Lenovo has brought the first Tango phone to market. However, the Tango platform solution is half-baked and I am not clear how serious Google is about AR, given their first generation of AR smartphones on the market today. They still seem to be pushing harder into VR with Daydream and Tango seems to be more of an experiment. But that might change later this year if Apple comes out with their AR platform, something a lot of people believe Apple has up its sleeve with the next-gen iPhone. We should get an AR update from Google at their I/O developer conference next month.
Given the way Apple attacks markets with new software and uses it to sell new hardware, it makes me think Apple could actually be one of the companies that could bring AR to the mainstream market.
Here is the scenario I believe could evolve for Apple to make AR a household name.
First, I would expect Apple to add specific new hardware features to a next generation iPhone that could include extra cameras, incorporating a 360 degree feature, new types of proximity sensors, a new touch screen more sensitive for toggling between virtual and real worlds and perhaps new audio features such as some type of surround feature that could make a virtual scene come alive.
Second, they would create a dedicated AR software layer that sits on top of iOS that serves as an extended platform tied specifically to any new hardware-related features. That would be followed by a special SDK for developers who could create new and innovative apps for AR on a new iPhone.
If Apple does add AR to new iPhones, I suspect they would pre-seed five or six key developers with the AR SDK during the summer so when they launch the new iPhone in September, they can show off these apps along with the homegrown ones they would create themselves. This is pretty much the roadmap they follow when they introduce any new major device or significant new features for the iPad or iPhone and Apple following this plan is very likely should they use the new iPhone to introduce AR this year.
Given the secrecy of Apple, I doubt we will hear anything about AR at Apple’s Worldwide Developers conference in San Jose in early June.
But what is most important about this, should Apple enter the AR market, is the fact they would provide a powerful new AR platform developers can innovate around and serve as a vehicle to bring AR to the mainstream.
This would throw down a major challenge to Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Amazon to create their own AR platforms and this will become the next major platform gold rush that will drive new tech growth in the next three to four years.
The other company who could bring AR to the masses quickly is Facebook. At their F8 conference this week, Facebook showed off a new camera that will be at the heart of a new AR platform that can be used to add virtual objects to their app.
Here is how VR Focus describes the role of the camera in a Facebook VR platform:
“Facebook is going to use the camera part of the Facebook app to build a new platform for augmented reality by implementing camera effects. Standard effects already used on other apps such as face masks, style transfers etc. will be available from the start. Users will be able to create their own since it will be an open platform. The new AR platform will be launched as open Beta today.
Facebook hopes to take further advantage of developing technologies such as Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM) which allows the camera to plot out where an object is in the real world so AR can seems to be placed accurately in the ‘real world’. Additionally, Facebook is working on technology that allows the conversion 2D stills mages into 3D representations that can be modified with AR. The object recognition that will be introduced to the app means that the camera can ‘recognise’ the size, depth and location of the objct so the object can be manipulated within the AR space.”
The commonality of both Facebook and Apple is the development of an AR platform, an SDK, and the role software developers will play in creating innovative AR apps is what is important to understand. Although voice as a platform will continue to grow and be important, it is my sense AR is really the next major platform we will see the most innovation from in the near future.