SAN FRANCISCO — The reality is augmented reality is slowly seeping into everyday technology use by millions of Americans. It just needs an iPhone power boost.
Last year's phenomenon of Pokemon Go — one of the most-downloaded apps worldwide in 2016 — and the popularity of Snapchat illustrated the potential of this technology to put mobile games and social networking into overdrive. The nascent tech, which overlays digital images onto the physical world (a park bench, your best friend, a pet), now gets down to business. The next iteration as envisioned by Google, Facebook and others could make it more practical for consumers and the businesses that serve them.
And Apple, which hosts its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose starting Monday, may soon join the party.
Imagine this: You point your smartphone camera at a restaurant, and restaurant reviews pop up over the photo. That's Google's vision for its yet-to-be released Lens technology. Or you could figure out how to fix a light switch — by receiving instructions that overlay your real-life project as you complete the task. That task is already simple for Microsoft's HoloLens glasses, though these remain expensive ($3,000) and limited to developers.
There's some expectation that the next version of iPhone, expected in September or October, could include augmented reality (AR), giving the technology a burst of momentum. "Apple is the best-placed of all major tech companies to drive mobile AR," says Tim Merel, CEO of Digi-Capital, an AR/VR mergers-and-acquisitions adviser. He pegs the market at $60 billion and 1 billion users by 2021.
"We believe AR in the next iPhone will be a turning point for the broader AR industry," says Gene Munster, head of research at Loup Ventures. The longtime Apple analyst predicts Apple will sell more than 100 million augmented units of the forthcoming iPhone, sometimes dubbed X or 10, and says it will go mainstream when 500 million units or more are sold.
That's "still a few years away," says Munster, who expects 3-D depth mapping on iPhone X. Such a function, for example, would let furniture shoppers envision a new chair replacing an old one in their home by peering at their phone screen.
Apple declined comment for this story, but its leader has made no secret of its interest in augmented reality — sometimes called distorted, or mixed reality.
"I regard (augmented reality) as a big idea like the smartphone," Apple CEO Tim Cook told The Independent newspaper during a trip to the UK in February. "The smartphone is for everyone. We don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic or country or vertical market. It’s for everyone. I think AR is that big. It’s huge. I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives."
Interest in augmented reality is keen among iPhone users, particularly millennials, according to a survey of 502 Americans in March by Loup Ventures. Of those who plan to purchase the 10th-anniversary edition of iPhone, 26% indicated an interest in AR features — 34% among those 18 to 29 years old.
That youth interest could be a stumbling block when it comes to eyewear, one of the prime vehicles for using the technology.
Glasses are pricey, and users have rejected clunky headsets like the iconic but failed Google Glass. Plus, a majority of the under-40 crowd does not wear corrective eyewear.
So an iPhone with built-in augmented reality could qualify as a wow moment for the technology. Augmented reality has slowly but surely gained moderate use and awareness, propelled by the emergence of Pokemon Go, Snapchat, HoloLens, start-up Magic Leap and Google's Tango augmented reality platform.
It's also expected to enhance experiences in specially tailored environments such as amusement parks and museums. In the everyday world, things should evolve — albeit glacially — as smartphones drive its use.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai talks about Google Lens, which lets you point your phone's camera at places and objects to get information about them. (Photo: Eric Risberg, AP)
At its developers conference in May, Google unfurled Google Lens, an AR feature that company CEO Sundar Pichai calls an "inflection point with vision." It relies on machine learning to turn a camera into a search box so, for example, a consumer can identify a type of flower by viewing it through the camera.
In April, Facebook underscored its intent to blend the physical and digital worlds through AR glasses or lenses by opening its camera effects platform to software developers. "We're making the camera the first augmented reality platform," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the F8 developers conference in San Jose then. But that is years away: For now, Facebook's camera effects are confined to doctoring selfies with goofy masks, frames and filters.
Tech giants are plowing money into what they expect will be one of the next big leaps to how we communicate -- with ourselves and the vast reams of information they have on tap. In the first quarter of this year, companies bought 34 companies in artificial intelligence, the key component in augmented reality. That was more than twice that of the same period a year ago, according to market researcher CB Insights. Since 2012, Google has snapped up 11 AI start-ups, followed by Apple (7), Facebook (5) and Intel (5).
A look into Facebook's F8 Developer Conference
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at his company's annual F8 Developer Conference in San Jose, Calif. Noah Berger, AP