Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.
Apple’s next big thing is apparently going to be augmented reality, which is too bad because augmented reality is probably going to be the tech world’s next big letdown.
A Bloomberg report this week was the latest in a long line of articles noting the iPhone maker’s interest in the nascent technology, which involves superimposing computer graphics onto the real world using various forms of displays.
The company has been on a hiring and acquisition spree in the field of late, with its ultimate goal being lightweight AR glasses that will blend and merge the reality wearers see around them with apps, videos and games.
Its chief executive Tim Cook has fuelled this speculation by expressing enthusiasm for the technology, preferring it to its virtual reality cousin. VR is isolating, he has said, because of the sensory-depriving headset users must wear. AR, however, lets users stay grounded in their physical surroundings.
Also buoying overall expectations is Pokemon Go, the AR game for smartphones that became a global phenomenon last summer. The game, which encouraged users to capture cartoon monsters hiding in the real world, passed US$1 billion in revenue last month.
With those sorts of headwinds, it’s no surprise analysts are bullish. The research firm Global Market Insights, for one, expects the global market for AR to be worth US$165 billion by 2024.
But these are optimistic views, to say the least. The reality – so to speak – is likely to be a bit less heady.
While virtual reality certainly has its challenges, AR acceptance is facing its own unique set of obstacles, perhaps even more so than VR. Just ask Google.
It was only a few years ago that the search company engaged in its own experiment with AR glasses. Google Glass promised all manner of interactive AR apps, from weather forecasting to messaging, only for it to become one of the biggest technology flops in recent memory.
Google Glass was marred by its high price tag – it sold for $1,500 – and unattractive design, which made wearers look like the Borg villains from Star Trek.
It was also a privacy problem. The glasses’ always-on cameras made many non-wearers uncomfortable, to the point where Glass owners became unwelcome in public places. Bars and restaurants quickly enacted bans on the devices and the people who wore them.
All AR glasses, including the toy-like Spectacles released by Snapchat last year and any possible upcoming product from Apple, are going to face the same resistance simply because cameras are necessary for their operation. And people’s discomfort with potentially being recorded by strangers without knowledge or consent is a concern that’s not going away.
The other big obstacle facing AR glasses is that many people don’t like having anything – much less technology – right in their face. AR glasses, which project text, images and video directly in front of the user’s eyes, do that literally.
Mechanics, plumbers, surgeons and certain other professionals may choose to trade off that natural discomfort in favour of the effective X-ray vision that AR glasses can deliver, which would enhance their abilities to perform their jobs. But the general public – Apple’s main market – isn’t likely to be as receptive.
The biggest strike against AR glasses, at least as far as the average consumer is concerned, is one we’ve heard before in relation to smartwatches – they’re unlikely to do much that smartphones don’t already do.
Some hands-free implementations could be handy – navigation directions while riding a bike or motorcycle would be useful – but is there much to be gained by beaming Pokemon Go-like games directly to one’s eyes?
Many existing AR apps, such as sign translation or astronomy guides, are already perfectly usable on a smartphone. Moving them into an additional gadget won’t improve them much, which raises the question of why bother?
AR is likely to be more useful in other form factors. San Francisco-based start-up Navdy, for example, is selling a heads-up display for car dashboards that shows navigation directions, incoming messages and other information. It’s not a stretch to imagine such a setup eventually being incorporated directly into car windshields.
Several small companies are also experimenting with AR mirrors, which allow users to test out new makeup combinations or haircuts. It’s similarly foreseeable that many mirrors in the future will have technological features baked in.
None of the reports on Apple’s interest in augmented technology suggest the company is thinking in those directions. If its fixation is indeed on glasses, look for them to be the next Apple Watch – a niche curiosity that’s far from a big hit.