April 14, 2017
Apple’s plans to get involved in augmented reality has got the tech world curious and excited about what it will entail. However, we have very little concrete to go on so far. By piecing together what we do know, like their pattern of acquisitions and statements, we can easily speculate wildly about what the future might hold.
We all remember how the iPhone reshaped and, in some ways, created the market for mobile apps we know today. With that in mind, an Apple augmented reality device could change the field for developers and consumers alike.
What Are Reality-Based Technologies?
Virtual, augmented, and mixed reality are generally grouped together as “reality-based” (or sometimes “reality-altering”) technologies. The key underpinning of this grouping is the fact that they use virtual, digital elements to change how we perceive reality. For virtual reality, this means plunging the user into 360 degrees of complete alternative reality, one that doesn’t include any elements from the physical world.
The difference between augmented and mixed reality is a bit of a contested, terminological territory. The general conception of augmented reality refers to technology that augments, supports, or improves how people interact with the physical world. Until very recently, this technology has been limited in its scope and had lacked true “wow” factor. Microsoft, Apple’s great competitor, has developed and is close to releasing the final product of their HoloLens. In effect, it could be defined as an augmented reality device. In order to emphasize the degree to which the HoloLens is a definitive step forward in scale and kind from existing AR technologies, they decided to term it as a mixed reality device.
The Competitor: Microsoft HoloLens
The HoloLens is a head-mounted device that allows the user to interact with virtual elements that realistically interact and integrate with physical components of the surroundings. This means that, unlike traditional AR mobile apps that operate as “overlays,” this mixed reality includes virtual objects that bounce off physical surfaces, roll down real slopes and are occluded by passing objects.
This is all accomplished with the use of spatial mapping functions that operate in real-time and provide the information to orient virtual models (or holograms in Microsoft lingo). In a comparison with HoloLens, an Apple AR device would rely on similar technology.
As of now, the Development Edition of the HoloLens has been released for businesses and developers. The exact release date for the retail version has not yet been released but the working efficiency of the Development Edition portents a not-too-distant release.
The spark that arose of all this speculation was Tim Cook’s comments regarding Apple’s interest in AR.
“I regard augmented reality is a big idea like the smartphone,” said Cook. “The smartphone is for everyone, we don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it’s for everyone. I think AR is that big, it’s huge. I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives.”
This has since been further substantiated by the inferences drawn from the recent hirings and acquisitions of personnel and startups involved in the technology. The major question that has emerged is “which direction will they plan to take with AR?” On the one hand, there could be iPhone, mobile-based development and, on the other hand, there could a head-mounted/Google Glasses-inspired device.
iPhone's Augmented Reality
People in the industry like me and you, are so excited about all the crazy things augmented reality is capable of, such as restructuring how manufacturers conceptualize products, retailers market products, and so on. But for everyday consumers, the introduction of these new technologies will likely be simpler and more familiar.
It's very likely that when Apple looks at the question of implementing AR, they won’t ask “What amazing new features can we add?” but instead “What do users already do that we can make better?” The extension of this question is to look at when and why users have their phones out in a way that is directly related to the environment around them.
With this in mind, navigation seems like a logical place for AR-integration. Instead of looking at a top-down map that can be disorienting for a person unfamiliar with landmarks or streets, AR could allow a user to simply see on the screen the world around them with directions overlaying it. In concrete terms, this could a highlighted line, or track, that the user would see on his screen.
Filters for social apps, most notably Snapchat, have gained massive usage among younger demographics. The idea of using this technology to make real-time, filtered videos is the kind of thing that at first seems trivial but in truth would be used by huge numbers of users.
Standalone AR Device
The Google Glasses were a well-documented bust. Some people say the technology just wasn’t advanced enough to support the idea, whereas others blamed how they looked. In all likelihood, these two major reasons worked in tandem to kill the groundbreaking technology. With the success of HoloLens yet to be determined, the figures at Apple must be reasoning out the cost-benefits of embarking on a similar project.
Apple has already deployed devices like the Apple Watch that work in concert with an iPhone. It is very feasible that a standalone AR device would, in fact, be linked with an iPhone so as to provide power without forcing the AR device to be too large and clunky.
What’s the Strategy?
Are they looking to make the same leap made by Google and Microsoft in building a completely new type of device that, if successful, would be game-changer in the mold of the iPhone? It seems to us that perhaps that is a long-term goal but we’re much likely to see iPhone oriented AR first.
The jury still remains out and leaning toward a damning indictment, when it comes to head-mounted devices. Virtual reality trends seem to show people aren’t opposed to using them in dedicated, intentional settings. But the idea of people walking around with contraptions on their heads still seems far away. The most likely outcome seems to be a new, AR-oriented iPhone. For developers, that’d be a dream come true. Reality-based technology is here to stay. It’s fun. It’s useful. And it’s just so cool when it works well.
Read more about augmented reality here on Tech.Co
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