One thing that’s always defined Apple is a knack for shaping computing’s future. But lately, it’s been characterized more as the company that’s sitting back and watching others define tech’s next transformation: virtual reality and augmented reality.
As discussed in past columns, I believe VR will come first but AR will be bigger. AR’s size results from broader commercial applicability in consumer and enterprise markets, as well as its potential for all-day use. And a lot of that commercial applicability involves local commerce.
AR’s cousin VR is already here, mostly in gaming but branching soon into several areas such as social, enterprise and commerce. And recently we’ve seen the sector accelerate with a string of events such as Oculus Connect 3, PSVR launch and Google Daydream.
But all this VR excitement is precisely where Apple’s absence is felt. Sexy and futuristic VR launches stand in stark contrast to Apple’s own Fall hardware event, where it’s signature gadget-centric keynote unveiled … a new laptop keyboard.
This either means Apple could miss this next tech shift (which I’ve speculated), or that it’s playing the long game. The latter could involve a deliberately late entrance to VR and AR, just as it did with previous technologies (e.g. tablets, mp3 players).
If it is a long game, what could that eventual entrance look like? And when will it come? Evidence so far points to AR rather than VR. That’s due to the market sizing reasons mentioned above, as well as Tim Cook’s comments about AR’s size and opportunity.
We can also triangulate Apple’s AR ambitions through a few recent product launches. The iPhone 7 Plus’ dual cameras enable depth sensing through stereoscopic vision. That’s a basic requirement for computer vision which in turn is a key component of AR.
This would put Apple’s 2013 acquisition of 3D-sensing company PrimeSense in more relevant light. While we’re naming acquisitions, the 2015 purchase of AR software company Metaio further supports an AR direction.
More clues are found in the new AirPods. The tech press’ obsession with the missing headphone jack distracted from the real story: this could be the the new shape of AR. Rather than graphics, ambient audio via always-in Airpods could be the new informational overlay.
In terms of local, this would provide audio cues to guide us through the physical world, including local commerce (“the bar to your left serves that Belgian White that you like”). This would likely aggregate Siri, Maps and other vertical app partners for an overall local AR play.
But perhaps most exciting was the clue uncovered by Robert Scoble. Based on a mix of insider tips and speculation, he paints the picture of a 2017 iPhone release that will be a two-sided glass frame, built specifically for AR. This could be Apple’s first meaningful step into the medium.
This would align with Apple’s mobile-centric M.O.. The iPhone is where it derives most of it’s profit and where its healthiest margins lie. That means most of its operational structure and supply chain are built on the slab format. Any moves in AR would likely start there.
An iPhone-based AR play also aligns with the overall business case for mobile AR. Though glasses-based AR is the sexier format we’re all excited about, an installed base of 2.6 billion smartphones makes mobile the nearer term (and less “glasshole” prone) opportunity.
All of this means that Apple isn’t necessarily late to VR and AR… It could simply be leapfrogging the former to get to the bigger opportunity held by the latter. And because AR’s time horizon is a few years away, it could end up being just in time.
Michael Boland is chief analyst and VP of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.