In the past couple of weeks there have been reports that Apple is ramping up its efforts on augmented reality (AR) on multiple fronts. Not only are they planning to expand AR sensor hardware in future iPhone models. They are also actively working on a dedicated AR headset and operating system, that may actually replace that iPhone altogether.
A strategic commitment
Whether you believe these rumours or not, Tim Cook has certainly been open about Apple’s faith in augmented reality for a while now, calling it “big”, “huge” and able to “transform the way we use technology forever”.
Of course, Apple has already been instrumental in bringing the medium to the forefront this year with the release of ARKit, their framework to create mobile AR apps for iPhone and iPad. Google, Microsoft, Magic Leap and others are also investing heavily to deliver on the promise of AR in the coming years, but none of the major players seem to be as strategically committed to AR as Apple is.
So what can these rumours and past experience tell us about Apple’s roadmap for augmented reality? Can they evolve from mobile AR on the iPhone to that future vision of an immersive, intelligent AR headset? And how?
Mobile AR 1.0
What can AR do today?
Some of the most compelling ARKit-based apps we’ve seen so far are IKEA Place, MeasureKit and Vuforia Chalk. These 3 apps deliver new digital tools and experiences that were nearly impossible on a smartphone until very recently. Each represents an important aspect of what’s possible with mobile augmented reality:
- attractively visualising a product in a certain setting
- measuring real-world distances easily
- remotely assisting someone
What's still lacking?
These AR apps push up against and expose the limits of mobile AR today. IKEA Place can put a convincing virtual couch in your living room, but the lighting isn’t quite right. And if your cat walks in front of your AR couch, it disappears and breaks the illusion. MeasureKit can let you measure your walls and floors quickly, but as you traverse larger distances you’ll start to see small errors and inaccuracies build up and throw off your results.
Neither app can remember where you placed a virtual element into the real world when you come back to it the next day, so you have to start over each time. This lack of a long-term memory is a glaring hole in ARKit.
The next step: mobile, immersive & intuitive
Developing the perfect AR headset
What we at In The Pocket are hoping to see 5 years from now is a hands-free, comfortable AR headset that beautifully and intelligently surfaces digital information, tools and communications in the real world anytime we need it. Yes, we can be a little demanding sometimes.
Apple’s effort to produce this kind of product, codenamed T288, is far from finished. Neither is rOS, the iOS-based operating system that will power it. The company is still exploring different approaches, using high-end VR hardware like the HTC Vive to prototype their designs.
They realize it will require years of investment, exploration and smart choices to come to a great standalone AR product for the mass market, especially at Apple’s quality standards. Maybe Microsoft can get away with selling a bulky, expensive developer kit that hurts your nose after 10 minutes. But from Apple we will expect nothing less than fashionable product design, comfortable ergonomics, good battery life and a high-quality user experience. At a premium price, of course.
Looking forward to 2020
The device that Apple wants to build — the one that Tim Cooks wants to wear on stage as he delivers AR’s “iPhone moment” sometime in the early 2020’s — might look like a cross between Microsoft’s HoloLens and Google Glass. But no matter what it looks like, it will need to present a clear and ambitious vision for the future of computing: mobile, immersive and intuitive.
So to Tim Cook from all of us at In The Pocket: good luck. We have high hopes that your bet will pay off and your enthusiasm will be justified. The road is long and difficult and we’ll be watching every move closely. But if you can point us in a clear new direction with augmented reality, like your predecessor pointed us towards our mobile future a decade ago, we’ll gladly join you for the ride.
To be continued…
In part 2 of this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at that glaring hole in ARKit: it’s lack of a long-term memory. Solving this problem will dramatically expand what Apple can do with AR. Or is Google one step ahead?