Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly expressed the company’s interest in exploring augmented reality (AR) technology last year when he likened its game-changing potential to that of the smartphone. While most of Apple’s projects are closely guarded before their final showcasing to the world, the rumor mill keeps throwing out a glimpse or two into the industry’s biggest ideas. The newest detail to emerge on Apple’s progress in the AR segment indicates that the iPhone maker has already begun its expedition of bringing the technology to the masses through a hardware product that will be built by some of the best minds in the industry.
Augmented reality differs from virtual reality as it does not require a dedicated hardware for an immersive experience. It can be best understood through the example of Pokémon GO. The game used a smartphone’s camera capabilities to place virtual objects on top of real environments. Virtual reality, on the other hand, needs a dedicated headset – the likes of an Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard- in which a secondary device like a smartphone could be placed for an immersive experience. As Cook explains, the future is in augmented reality because of its less-interfering nature as compared to virtual reality.
Now, according to a report on Bloomberg, Apple has formed a team of engineers from both hardware and software domains to help explore the potential of augmented reality technology which one day might make it to the iPhones. The company is further seeking technology prowess of engineers outside its organization – something contrary to Apple’s existing law of building new products. Headed by a former Dolby Laboratories executive Mike Rockwel, the team includes engineers who have worked on Facebook’s Oculus VR headset and Microsoft’s mixed reality HoloLens headset. The team also includes digital-effects professionals from Hollywood.
The latest development follows Apple’s existing acquisitions of several firms which have been exploring AR hardware, 3D gaming, and VR software, including the likes of Metaio and Flyby among others.
With this team of experts, the company is reportedly working on enhancing the camera capabilities of the iPhone. One of the features underway experimentation is the ability to take a picture and then change the depth of the photograph or the depth of specific objects in the picture later. Another feature aims to isolate an object within a given image, such as a person’s head, and allow it to be tilted 180 degrees. A third feature is believed to use augmented reality to place virtual effects and objects on a person, something which a lot of present day apps like Snapchat already have in place. These features, rumored for the upcoming iPhone 8, rely on a technology called depth sensing and use algorithms created by PrimeSense, the Israeli company acquired by Apple in 2013.
In addition to having an army of engineers and firms already working on AR technology, the company also has plenty of patents which talk extensively about AR-based products. One of these include a digital spectacles, something on the lines of Google Glass, which could wirelessly connect to an iPhone and project content such as maps, weather, etc. to the wearer. However, given that Google Glass’s epic failure serves as an industry example, it might need Apple to do a lot of research and get the privacy settings in place before leapfrogging to commercial AR-based digital spectacles.
On the other hand, bringing the features to its iconic iPhone might be a more achievable short term plan. With the launch of AR-based Pokémon GO game, the interest of consumers for the technology on the hand-held smartphone was huge. According to Global Market Insights, the global market for AR is expected to surge 80 percent to $165 billion by 2024, which essentially means not only a surge in the demand for AR-based products but also compatible content. With a dedicated AR hardware or capabilities embedded into the iPhone, Apple will not only have an edge over competition still struggling with getting the batteries and display sizes right, but also help the company stay relevant in the gradually stagnating market.