In August, I wrote a piece suggesting Apple did not have any VR products that could hit the market any time soon.
Since then, Apple CEO Tim Cook has gone on record stating AR seems to hold more promise for the market than VR and, while not ruling out a VR play directly, it seems AR may be where Apple is focusing more of its energy these days.
As you know, AR and VR are one of the hot new areas the tech industry is focusing on. In fact, as I stated in a recent column, AR and VR will most likely become the next major user interface that will drive the next generation of computing at all levels.
But I think AR and VR, in what is called “mixed reality”, may be one of those transformational technologies that actually changes the computing experience altogether.
At the recent Wall Street Journal D conference, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella made an interesting observation. He stated, “The ultimate computer is this mixed reality world, where your field of view becomes this infinite display”.
Indeed, the concept of having an infinite display to see and interact with your digital content is fascinating. We got a taste of this with Pokemon Go but take this to more extreme visuals. Walking down the street, one can see their outside world but relative images, content and data could be superimposed on these scenes and would deliver a richer view of your surroundings. Or, if you need directions as you walk, the map is right in front of you and shows you where to turn and guide you to your location in a more visual manner.
In listening to Tim Cook talk about AR, I get a sense he has a similar vision of an infinite display being important to any product they bring out in the AR category. However, I suspect his ways of delivering on this may be a bit different than the one Nadella and Microsoft envisions. Microsoft has already shown their hand via their AR-focused HoloLens platform, delivered through large and expensive goggles. The good news is the entire computing experience is built into the headset, unlike the VR headsets from Oculus and HTC’s VIVE that are tethered to a special PC or laptop with a dedicated graphics card to drive the VR experience.
But scuttlebutt in the AR and VR circles is Apple’s approach to delivering AR may be more through an iPhone and, perhaps at a touch of a special strip on the bottom of the screen, it could instantly overlay AR-based info and content in the context of what you see through your iPhone screen. When I first heard this idea tossed around from some VR researchers, it got me wondering if this made sense.
One of my big concerns about delivering AR through goggles or glasses goes back to my own experience with Google’s Glass that I tested when they first came out. Besides making me look like a geek and like I was threatening the privacy of anyone I was with, they just did not work well as a vehicle for delivering data and information through a small screen that was hard to view. These glasses or goggles make sense for use in dedicated applications like VR gaming or in vertical markets where these types of VR/AR glasses can be used for specific needs but not as everyday digital eyewear.
On the other hand, if I just hold up my iPhone and point it at a site and AR-based images and content are superimposed on the screen, this would be more culturally acceptable as well as being a very effective way to add AR to the smartphone user experience. For this to happen, Apple would have to do a great deal of work in software tied to AI and machine learning. It goes beyond what they do with Siri right now. At the moment, Siri is a voice-based AI. But, superimposed AR images and content would need to draw from an even larger data base of pictures, images, and information with contextual context coupled to AI and machine learning for this to work.
Recently, Apple hired some top talent in AR, VR, AI and machine learning and most thought this was specifically related to making Siri smarter. But, if Apple’s next big thing is AR delivered via an iPhone, these new hires make even more sense.
Now, this does not preclude them from doing some type of goggles to augment this AR iPhone experience, especially if their ultimate solution would be mixed reality applications where VR is also a part of their solution.
However, given Tim Cook’s rhetoric that is centered more around AR, maybe optimizing the iPhone for AR apps is their starting point and, as it evolves and the technology gets better, perhaps they expand what they do and can offer apps also include VR.
But if AR is their next big thing and it comes initially via a new iPhone, it would not surprise me if Apple becomes the one who brings AR to the masses while most competitors focus on the higher end of the AR and VR market.