I think it is profound. I am so excited about it, I just want to yell out and scream...—Tim Cook, responding to a Bloomberg interview question about AR
Even we can’t predict what’s going to come out.
Augmented reality (AR) is by no means a new technology. As a smartphone carrying society, we’ve been able to overlay digital information on top of the physical world at least as far back as 2009—the year the Layar app was launched.
It’s that same technology nearly a decade later that is suddenly emerging as the heir apparent to the smartphone.
Let’s face it. There’s going to come a time in the near future, probably not as far off as you’d think, when the smartphone is going to lose steam. It’s not going to be our primary mode of interacting with other individuals or the world around us. And if you’ve been listening to analysts throughout the industry recently, it seems like augmented reality could be that next platform.
But the use cases for AR have been nothing short of uninspired. Beyond Layar making things pop off of magazine pages, the augmented experience has involved things like live mapping, in-store retail gimmicks, poor AR makeup applications, Twitter layers (bleh…), and more. One of the most notable AR flops comes from Google, which rushed to market their Glass device. Google Glass had a very-futuristic looking design that included a piece of hardware over the right eye and a small glass screen that displayed menus and other information. The project was canned shortly after its launch in 2012 with many analysts decreeing that it was too far ahead of its time. Glass still exists in enterprise applications and could resurface as a consumer product in the future. But it was, for all intents and purposes, a failure.
The first real excitement around AR technology surfaced last summer with the launch of Niantic and Nintendo’s Pokémon Go app. The game allowed users to run around town, catching little virtual creatures in real world environments through their smartphone’s camera. All of a sudden, people started to understand the significance of AR and the possibilities the technology presents moving forward.
Without knowing it, AR has really crept into our lives, almost entirely thanks to the same device we’ve been lugging around in our pockets and purses for the better part of the last decade. Just as important as our smartphones have become in introducing us to AR, so too have social apps. Think about all of those selfie-taking people out there who use apps like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and more—those filters that get overlaid on top of our faces to make us look like dogs, cats, and other strange creatures? That’s AR.
Beyond the smartphone, augmented reality exists in ways that most consumers probably don’t even notice. Backup cameras, which are standard now on new vehicles, are an application of AR in the vehicle. The image that displays on the dash or center console has a pathway graphic, those green, yellow, and red markers that let you know the direction you’re heading and how far away you are from the object you’re about to back into. That’s AR.
Another in-vehicle application of augmented reality: Heads-up Displays (HUDs). First used by the military (in tanks, planes, and other vehicles), HUDs are tiny pieces of glass placed in front of the operator’s line of sight. In cars, these displays have been baked directly into windshields (Chevy, Mazda, Jaguar, MINI, Lexus, and Mercedes are a few that come to mind), and they exist in aftermarket products like Navdy. That’s AR.
Even on television, AR has been around for quite some time. NFL broadcasts began displayed yellow first down lines back in 1998. It first appeared during a Sunday Night Football game on September 27, 1998 in a game that featured the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. That marker is a piece of technology broadcast on top of the real world. Players, coaches, refs, and fans in the stadium don’t see that yellow line. That’s AR.
Thinking outside of the physical world, augmented listening has become a reality with devices like Apple’s AirPods (which can access Siri), and Here One’s smart earbuds that let users control their real-world listening experience. Even Bragi is in the AR game with The Dash Pro, which integrates iTranslate functionality and other in-ear tech. All of that is (sort of) AR.
It’s this gentle trickling of the technology that has allowed consumers to slowly adopt and appreciate augmented reality. Springing it on them like Google tried to do with Glass clearly doesn’t work. Hands need to be held and the experience needs to be somewhat transitional, using technology that we’re already used to.
During its Worldwide Developers Conference keynote in May, Apple pulled the covers off of its new ARKit platform, which equipped app developers with the tools needed to apply augmented reality features to any Apple device running the latest iOS.
It’s a game changer.
Whereas Apple has quite often taken heat for making it seem like they’ve developed a technology that’s been around for years (see: Apple Pay, dropping the headphone jack, and fingerprint sensors, among others), they can absolutely lay claim to taking a technology and making it something that appeals to the mass market.
ARKit is no different. Augmented reality technology in phones has been around for at least a year. Google and Lenovo worked together to develop Google’s Tango software. Tango was launched last winter on Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro, a device with the right set of specs capable of supporting the AR/spatial awareness technology. While Tango is wildly impressive (the Phab 2 Pro was a Best in Show winner at CE Week last year), it has some drawbacks. Namely, because the technology is baked into the sensors and cameras of the Phab 2 Pro, you need that particular phone in order to use Tango. Other Tango-ready phones are coming, like the ASUS Zenfone AR, but users are left with one or two options.
Apple, on the other hand, has developed ARKit in a way that will allow it to work on iPhone as long as the user has the most recent iOS installed. That means, right off the bat, tens of millions of iPhone users will be able to access powerful ARKit features. Almost immediately that will throw a very damp towel on Google’s AR party. Developers are likely to jump (and have) from developing apps for Tango to working on ARKit apps simply because of the wider consumer base that Apple offers. So while Google had a year and a half head start with Tango, Apple is primed to take the lead in the AR race by the time the new iPhone hits the market in September.
But what about what’s next in AR? The consensus among the tech community seems to be that smartphones are the “gateway” to AR—for now. In fact, they could become more of a hindrance to the experience. At the risk of sounding incredibly lazy, consider this: Why do we continue to use the camera of a device that has to be held out in front of you? Aren’t you tired of having to hold your phone out in front of you? Why not free up both hands?
Our ability to get past the smartphone rests on tech companies’ ability to develop fashionable products. Though Google Glass might’ve been ahead of its time, the fact remains it was a straight up ridiculous looking product. Glassholes were called glassholes for a reason. It’s the same reason I’m still not completely comfortable walking around in public with AirPods. It’s a major commitment to strap a piece of technology onto your body, whether that’s in the form of a smartwatch, smart glasses, or smart earbuds. It’s hard to imagine a world in which these products don’t make users look at least a little nerdy. But it’d be nice if they didn’t look like giant billboards for nerdiness.
Functionality and ease of use are important. But the major obstacle that still needs to be addressed is how unstylish these products are. Whatever the product.
They’re still not great, but the best design I’ve seen to date might be Snap with their Snapchat Spectacles. The glasses look and function like normal sunglasses. It’s clear that there’s a camera lens above each eye, but it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. You could get away with wearing them out and about without drawing too much attention to yourself—and I have. That’s where tech companies need to get to with the next level of AR products.
If Tim Cook really wants me to purchase a pair of Apple Glasses he needs to promise me that I’ll look like Clark Kent (six pack and superhuman strength included) and not some threatening cyborg.