Bloomberg is reporting that Apple is building up a team to develop an AR headset which will be fully vertically integrated from custom silicon all the way up to the apps and the services that run on the unit. If Apple is indeed working on an AR headset, I think that there is no way that the technology will be ready in 2019, and that the scale of the technical issues to be surmounted will keep ARKit firmly resident on the iPhone for the foreseeable future.
To be sure, I think it makes complete sense for Apple to explore this product area, but whether or not this will ever materialise into a real product is very uncertain. This is exactly what happened with project Titan, which was disbanded once Apple realized how difficult and financially damaging it would be for it to make and sell a vehicle.
I think that there is an argument to be made that AR has some potential to replace smartphones for consumers, but the technical challenges that need to be overcome are still huge. To make matters worse, there has not been that much progress made against these challenges since I first wrote about them in 2015.
- Size: to be adopted by consumers, the unit needs to be no more intrusive than a regular pair of spectacles. I also think that having a light head unit with the computing being executed on a pack that the consumer lugs around with him will not work. Everything needs to be in the glasses.
- Field of view: One of the biggest technical challenges of AR is to project the virtual world on top of the real world with a full field of view. This is proving to be a real challenge and almost every implementation to dated uses a huge bulky head unit that produces a letterboxed view of the virtual world. This is a user experience that in my opinion will not be acceptable to the consumer. This is the promise that Magic Leap has made but has yet to live up to.
- Artificial intelligence: to be really useful and fun, the virtual world will need to be aware of where the user is in the real world and of what he can see. This is essentially an AI problem which everyone is feverishly currently working on. At the launch of the iPhone 8, Apple demonstrated image recognition through the phone camera and Facebook has made some progress in this area. However, everyone, including Google, is very far from where they need to be to give a computer the contextual awareness that it needs to really make augmented reality work well for the consumer.
- Ecosystem: This is where the smaller companies and Magic Leap are going to fall over (if they haven’t already done so). Just like IoT, TVs, wearables and cars, AR is likely to be simply another medium by which to deliver Digital Life services to consumers. Consequently, users are going to want the Digital Life services they enjoy elsewhere to be present on the AR unit necessitating a good cross device offering as well as a vibrant third-party app community. Here, Apple probably has the best chance as its ecosystem on the iPhone remains the strongest currently available.
Note that these criteria do not apply to AR in the enterprise, as the nature and economics of the interaction of the user with the unit is completely different.
The net result is that while Apple is right to explore the possibilities of AR, I suspect that there is no concrete intention to launch a unit. I see this activity much like the vehicle or the television, which were experiments that failed to stand up to the scrutiny of market reality. AR is likely to remain a prisoner on the smartphone for the foreseeable future and not even Magic Leap looks capable of effecting a prison break any time soon.
This article was first published on RadioFreeMobile