A revolution is coming. And even the general public understands it has something to do with headsets, goggles or glasses.
But what is the reality of the coming revolution, exactly? Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), extended reality (ER), mixed reality (XR)?
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of his company from “Facebook” to “Meta,” then miraculously convinced the media to refer to all of these realities as “the metaverse.” That marketing miracle also led many to view Zuckerberg as the leader — or, at least, the thought leader — of this new trend.
That’s why people were shocked (and Zuckerberg mocked) when Zuck shared a selfie from Horizon Worlds, Meta’s virtual reality game, as part of its European debut; instead of looking like the future, it looked like the 1990s. He later explained on Instagram that the graphics were “pretty basic”… “taken very quickly to celebrate a launch.”
While Zuckerberg says VR is the future, Apple says AR is the future.
Confusing things further, Apple — the great mainstreamer of major hardware platforms — is expected next year to ship a VR product to be used for AR.
What’s revolutionary (and what’s not)
There’s so much FUD, muddled thinking, and hype around the so-called “metaverse” that it’s important to stop and understand what’s happening now and what’s likely to happen in the future.
- There is no metaverse, nor will there ever be. A “metaverse” is a shared, open, virtual- and augmented-reality version of the Internet. The days when industries, tech companies, and governments could all get together and agree on a single platform are long gone.
- The basic end-user devices for virtual and augmented reality experiences can be divided into three categories: 1) bulky indoors-only virtual reality goggles; 2) bulky indoors-only augmented reality goggles; and 3) all day, everyday augmented reality glasses that look like ordinary glasses.
- Of these three broad categories, the first two will offer exciting, high-quality experiences but will always be relatively niche products used for all kinds of things, but similar as a product category to video game consoles or drones — popular, but not central to most people’s lives.
- The third category — AR glasses that can be worn all day and in all social situations — will likely replace smartphones as the central device for everyone. This type of device will usher in a revolution in human culture and transform how we live, work and think. I think it’s reasonable to predict that AR glasses will be more important, more central to our work and our lives, than smartphones within 10 years.
Here’s what we know about Apple’s plans based on sourced reporting, patents, leaks and the examination of released code.
Apple has hundreds of employees actively building two separate hardware platforms that will run an Apple operating system called realityOS. The first is a headset; the second is glasses.
The headset is expected to ship next year, and is essentially VR hardware to be mainly used for AR, though it will support VR as well. What this means for AR is that a camera will capture the view of the user’s physical environment which will appear to the user in real time and be augmented with audio and visual information.
I’ve predicted before that Apple’s killer app for this platform will be avatar-based meetings.
The hardware will be as powerful as a PC (and as expensive — $2,000, at least), and will sport two 8K displays, one for each eyeball. The glasses will be packed with sensors for mapping 3D space, and monitoring the user’s identity, gaze and other factors. Spacial audio will help create the illusion that virtual objects exist in physical space.
The glasses, which will look close to ordinary eyeglasses and will support prescription lenses, may ship in 2025. We know little about the ultimate configuration of the glasses product, and Apple has probably not yet settled on final specs.
Of these two — the headset and the glasses — it’s the glasses that are likely to be the revolution that unseats smartphones as the central culture-shifting platform.
Based on comments by Apple CEO Tim Cook (most recently in June), the company believes AR is the future of Apple.
So why two platforms? Why the VR goggles? Why doesn’t Apple just wait until the glasses are ready? In the words of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer: “Developers, developers, developers, developers.”
It’s likely that Apple’s first headset offering will function mainly as a kind of proof of concept or reference design for the revolutionary glasses to come. They’ll probably compete in a crowded market for indoor-only, short-term use — hardware-heavy devices that will actually provide mind-blowing experiences, but will be too bulky, geeky, and limited for general business or consumer use.
But they’ll give developers a reason to stick with ARkit, or to embrace ARkit for the first time. They’ll enable enterprise developers to build custom apps. They’ll encourage niche markets to use realityOS for event marketing and experiential marketing. They’ll show the world what Apple is planning and make the world safe for the coming Apple Glasses, which could go massively mainstream and become the platform that replaces smartphones.
Going further out on a limb, I predict Apple will call this headset “Apple Reality.”
At least that may be Apple’s plan. A best-case scenario for Apple would be to ship its AR glasses in three years, and on ship-day have thousands of compelling apps to run on them.
Truly compelling apps need lots of time to develop. And enterprises need years of time for testing, development, training and integration. Apple’s stop-gap “Reality” headset will give them the time they need.
Will it work? Who knows. Apple has a great track record. But it will depend on what Apple actually develops and on what the competition does. And there will be competition.
Apple has a shot at dominating the third massive culture-shifting revolution (the other two being PCs and smartphones). But whether Apple itself succeeds or fails, it’s a near certainty that AR glasses are the third big revolution.
Why smartglasses will change the world
Smartglasses that you can wear everywhere all day like regular glasses will enable what some call the “augmented society.” For example, when you’re on a web page or reading an ebook or viewing a document on your laptop, every element you see is a doorway to relevant information. It can be copied, pasted, shared, captured, indexed, duplicated, sampled, saved and searched.
Printed content? Not so much. It just sits there, disconnected.
Researchers from the University of Surrey unveiled a new version of its Next Generation Paper (NGP) project. With low-cost conductive paper, physical paper books can offer up augmented content with a simple gesture, such as a swipe of the paper. The contextual information shows up on a nearby device.
This idea will be swept away by advanced AR glasses, which will be able to recognize text and offer up any kind of contextual information with hand gestures — no special paper, smartphone, or tablet required. The contextual information will hover over the book.
Cameras and other sensors, plus AI, will enable our glasses to recognize books, as well as signs, landmarks, objects, people and more. QR codes will tell glasses where to place virtual images and information.
The massive shift effected by AR is that all things, not just digital things, can acquire digital attributes.
Knowledge about things will increasingly appear to reside in the things themselves, not in human minds or on an internet you “go to.” The world will become the internet and the internet will become the world.
While it’s tempting to wonder how smartglasses will enable the kinds of things we do on smartphones, it’s important to remember that smartphones enabled behaviors we didn’t use to do — such as posting photos on social media. Smartglasses will turn the whole world into our own personal AI-augmented computers, and also usher in behaviors and abilities we can’t yet imagine.
Apple can’t afford to come in second place in the next culture-shifting technology. And so I believe it’s building two platforms: one for the developers, the other for the revolution.
Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.