Thanks to a tightly coordinated hardware and software strategy which prioritized accessibility and adoption, Apple Inc. has materialized a nigh-insurmountable lead in the augmented reality space. However, despite what the most optimistic evangelists would have you believe, a discrete, fully-realized AR headset for the consumers is still years away, and previous endeavors into this space have been decidedly less successful.
Having said this, Apple finds itself in an extremely enviable position; ARKit has galvanized both developers and brands, with consumers poised to follow suit. At the moment, no other OEM is currently better equipped to take on the task. And barring some incredible upset from competitors, Apple should see it's way clear to developing this technology in a scalable and consumer-friendly way.
With all this in mind, this compilation of Apple CEO Tim Cook's design philosophies for the future of AR outlines the major considerations in bringing such a device to market.
Readers will note that this discussion is centered around the goal of a consumer-facing product, as opposed to one for exclusively enterprise or creative use. While precise details about Apple's new device is not known, Cook’s recent statements characterizing AR makes Apple’s vision for the technology clear. Like ARKit, the company is aiming for discrete AR technology which is accessible to and functional for a wide audience:
"...It will be enabled in the operating systems first, because it’s a precursor for that to happen for there to be mass adoption of it… I do think that a significant portion of the population of… eventually all countries, will have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day, it will become that much a part of you… Over time, I think [these features] will be as key as having a website.”
In the same way that ARKit produced excitement in the industry by delivering rich content creation frameworks (which in turn yielded rich content), the release of an AR headset would further facilitate the integration of AR into existing media ecosystems. An AR HMD whose operating system (known as Reality Operating System, or rOS) was built on existing ARKit framework could conceivably ride the same wave of success as its predecessor, the iOS 11 handsets. However, no amount of refinement and marketing will solve Apple’s oldest issue regarding hardware: the walled garden.
Regarding ecosystem’s Apple’s talent for building a polished and satisfying experience within their tightly controlled product environment, tackling an AR headset will obviously bring with it some brand new problems. In order to properly implement their vision of an intuitive experience with plenty of functionality, Apple will have to find workarounds to account for the chaotic and unpredictable environment within which AR operates (that is, reality). Cook maintains that, in particular, designing an AR headset should emphasize mobility and interconnection.
...few people... think it’s acceptable to be tethered to a computer walking in here and sitting down, few people are going to view that it’s acceptable to be enclosed in something, because we’re all social people at heart.
In particular, these remarks bring to mind devices such as the Meta 2, which requires a hardline connection to a high-end PC in order to operate. While the Meta 2 has been met with cautious optimism from the industry, it is firmly fixed in the enterprise space. In the future, we can assume that the inclusion of a tethering element in an AR headset will be a key differentiator between consumer-facing and enterprise functionality.
Obviously, technological advancement has come extremely far since the early days of XR development. The technology which powered the Sword of Damascus is now commercially available and several orders of magnitude more advanced. However, one need only look to current devices on the market to determine that building key components such as
- waveguide or light-field display lenses
- sensors including machine vision gesture control
- mobile SoCs capable of discrete graphics-level performance
all while maintaining viable battery life and delivering at a reasonable cost is a herculean task that will put every part of Apple's hardware infrastructure to the test. Interestingly, Tim Cook doesn't appear too worried about the minutiae of headset components:
How long will [the technology] take? We don't give a rats about being first, we want to be best in creating people's experiences. Something that you would see out in the market any time soon would not be something that any of us would be satisfied with.
Either Apple has decided not to be first, or there is a lot to be excited about by 2020.