Apple will do something with Augmented Reality.
That’s not rumor or innuendo. Apple CEO Tim Cook repeatedly expressed his strong interest in the technology over the more isolating virtual reality over the last 12 months. Apple acquired an AR company over a year ago. And 2017 promises to be a very big year for the iPhone. Why wouldn’t Apple bring its own brand of mixed reality to its flagship product?
That all makes sense.
Robert Scoble’s report does not.
Scoble is a tech industry expert and veteran who knows everyone and, as of late, has been nestled deep in the world of virtual reality. Like me, he was at CES in early January looking for new and inspiring technologies. When you walk the floor, go to parties and rub elbows with old contacts, you hear things. Scoble heard something a few days ago.
A little tech birdie at the Carl Zeiss booth sidled up to him and whispered (yes, I’m guessing here), “We’re working with Apple…APPLE!…on a pair of augmented reality glasses.”
As Scoble reported on Monday:
“A Zeiss employee confirmed the rumors that Apple and Carl Zeiss AG are working on a light pair of augmented reality/mixed reality glasses that may be announced this year. (I thought it was next year but now that I saw this I believe it will happen this year).
I hear Meta is getting ready to announce same with Lumus, the optic folks.
And that explains why there was no augmented reality in Zeiss’s booth even though it was right in the middle of the AR area.”
It’s the hottest scoop since, well, the last time Scoble wrote that Apple was working with the highly-regarded optics company on AR.
Back then, he cited two unnamed sources. Now it’s one unnamed Zeiss employee (who soon may no longer be one if he did, in fact, spill the beans.).
Apple is not speaking on the record about this. Nor is Carl Zeiss. I contacted both for comment.
Even so, there’s a host of problems with this theory. The primary one being that I just don’t think Apple wants to build Google Glass 2.0.
AR on the radar
When I spoke to industry experts last year about Apple’s 2017, Augmented Reality was high on the list of possibilities. Creative Strategies president and long-time Apple watcher Tim Bajarin confirmed that Apple “has a lot of work going on in this space.” Bajarin, though, was less certain about whether 2017 would be the year of product delivery or simply one where they, say, signal their AR intentions at the World Wide Developers Conference in June.
Gartner analyst Brian Blau was even more bearish on the prospects of Apple AR and VR. telling me last year that the market was still too unsettled to deliver the kind of “mass market volumes” Apple prefers.
When I spoke to Blau via email on Tuesday about this new report, he told me he has no doubt Apple is working on some kind of future AR technology. However, he was less confident in Scoble’s story and was surprised that a Zeiss employee would just let that kind of info slip on the show floor.
“I don’t think Robert is being untruthful, but [it] sure seems like what he has is information that is out of context enough that we don’t know if this is a real effort at Apple now or one that is on their pathway to something real in the future,” wrote Blau.
The new thing and the wrong place
It’s obvious what’s happening here. Augmented Reality is the new thing, that thing that Apple is definitely hot on and that, when they do build it, will completely disrupt one or more industries. Previous new things include TVs and cars. No one believes Apple is going to build a TV anymore and confidence is waning in Apple Cars, as well.
AR, though, is a much surer thing. However, since it’s sort of stateless – AR can be applied to any number of existing pieces of hardware and software – people are spinning interesting and increasingly wild ideas for Apple’s AR implementation.
A pair of Apple AR glasses is the wildest of them all.
Here’s what Apple does well: It watches competitors try and sometimes succeed, but more often fail, to introduce new categories, products and technologies. It cherry picks others’ good ideas and marries them with its own. It waits for a market or market demand to ripen and then strikes. It is rarely, if ever, too early to a market. The closest Apple ever came to doing that, at least in recent years, was the Apple Watch. That, too, arrived long after the dust had settled on a wave of uninteresting Android Wear devices, but the market interest for smart watches was still comparably small. We still don’t know how many Apple Watches Apple has sold, but it has risen to the #2 spot on the luxury watch market.
Apple AR Glasses won’t find much support within Apple, either. In a 2015 New Yorker interview, Apple Chief Design Office Jony Ive was highly critical of Google Glass:
When he later saw Google Glass, Ive said, it was evident to him that the face “was the wrong place.” Cook said, “We always thought that glasses were not a smart move, from a point of view that people would not really want to wear them. They were intrusive, instead of pushing technology to the background, as we’ve always believed.” He went on, “We always thought it would flop, and, you know, so far it has.”
AR is everywhere and was the belle of the ball at CES, but there was no killer app or single product that signaled a shift in the AR universe. People know mixed and augmented reality has real potential, but consumers are just wrapping their heads around the idea of virtual reality (which had a strong holiday season and should have a stellar 2017).
I think Robert Scoble is right about one thing: 2017 will be the year we see Apple AR in a product. It just won’t be glasses. Here are the best bets:
The iPhone 8
A splashy new Apple product that transforms your mundane world when you put it on your face sounds exciting. The problem is that it’s not using the interface Apple cares about most. Apple’s AR will be an iPhone affair. Here’s why:
Ten years after the introduction of the first iPhone, Apple is planning something big. It still believes its flagship product and one of the world’s most popular smartphones is the center of our tech universe.
In a recent interview, Apple Worldwide Marketing Manager Phil Schiller reminded Back Channels’ Steve Levy that the iPhone screen is still king, “People are forgetting the value and importance of the display,” he told Levy, “Some of the greatest innovations on iPhone over the last ten years have been in display.”
Apple would also cringe at the thought of delivering sub-par AR. Google Glass wasn’t truly augmented reality. There was simply a translucent display virtually floating in front of your face. The device did not interact with the real world. Why? Because it’s almost impossible to squeeze the necessary AR technology inside a device as small as Google Glass (the frame wrapped around your head, but the computer and battery were confined to two small compartments on the front and one on the back of the device).
Microsoft’s HoloLens offers a much clearer picture of what it takes to fit consumer-grade AR inside one wearable. These are sizable goggles that require some cushion so they don’t feel uncomfortable when you wear them.
The iPhone is a much, much better vehicle for Apple’s AR ambitions. The processing power is already there, the 4.7-inch (or larger) screen is large and sharp enough and there’s already an excellent camera for capturing the reality part of the equation. What Apple must add is an IR camera that can read the 3D topography of the environment, so the iPhone 8 can effectively blend artificial objects and landscapes or even information and data with the real world.
Carl Zeiss, if it is in fact a partner, can provide the lens for the IR camera and/or for Apple’s latest iSight camera.
Bajarin, by the way, agrees with me, though he doesn’t rule out the possibility of glasses in a distant future. “I think that AR will be a cornerstone of what they do with next generation iPhones beginning later this year,” he said. “And build on that over the next few years by implementing it on an iPhone itself and where possible, add things like glasses to augment the experience.
Apple’s plans to build an Apple Car may have gone up in smoke, but its interest in transportation is likely undiminished.
I’ve long assumed that Apple’s strongest vehicular interests reside in interfaces. What if the new iPhone uses its AR to change your perspective on the road, so you can see the name of the highway and your direction laid out in front of you? If Apple squeezes a laser projector inside the iPhone 8, it could project the AR information onto your windshield.
Wild? Yes. Unlikely? Sure, but probably more likely than Apple AR Glasses.