Apple’s semi-official silence regarding AR and VR is occasionally interrupted by forward-looking, yet indiscriminate statements; the company’s strengths in design and marketing are lacking among current AR competitors.
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Favorable Words Toward AR
Apple CEO Tim Cook is again on record stating positive views regarding the augmented reality (AR) market. While not a controversial stance, any statements from Apple surrounding these quickly growing markets should be noted. The company acquired AR SDK company Metaio back in early 2015, and ever since, remains silent on plans or activity regarding the company or AR in general. This combines with whisperings of stealth teams of notable size working on AR and VR. Whether this acquisition was meant to thin potential competition, implement technology and features into Apple’s products and roadmap in the future, or a likely combination of the two, it ultimately points to AR activity in the near future.
Consumer augmented reality has not yet been notable, especially when compared to the strong forecast for AR in enterprise applications. There are a number of reasons for this:
Hardware selection is limited, with only a handful of devices reasonably ready for the consumer market
Current smart glasses offerings are cost-prohibitive for even enthusiast adoption, with use cases and applications for consumer use lacking despite this
Consumer AR content is nearly non-existent, with resources dedicated to short-term, strong ROI use cases in enterprise
Misunderstanding and/or disinterest in the technology thanks to the lack of products and an equal lack of consumer marketing
Many of these obstacles will not be solved quickly, but Apple can bring a few unique aspects to AR to counteract them, such as compelling product design, strong marketing, and high brand recognition and desire. If any company can create a desire and trend for technology, it is Apple. Consider the growing interest surrounding the Apple Watch as a fashion accessory, for example. This could prove an incredible boon for consumer-ready AR, shedding the prototype-leaning styling and function of current AR offerings. While function trumps form in the enterprise space, an attractive design will still prove important in a market so focused on the human user.
A Number of Possible Paths
The company’s stagnation in the past few years has not gone unnoticed, and it is likely looking to innovate somewhere to counteract this. In the case of augmented reality, Apple is poised to follow a similar path to that of the iPad and its revolutionary impact on enterprise mobility devices. The iPad was first a consumer hit; additionally, it quickly made its way through enterprise integrations and eventually dominated both markets. The level of cohesion seen in the Apple ecosystem is something sorely missing from the current AR market, as well. Augmented reality is preparing to be the next revolution to replace current enterprise mobility devices, and there is no reason that Apple cannot have a similar impact now.
Smart glasses present only one potential AR path going forward; mobile-based augmented reality is growing, initially with SLAM processing on existing hardware and eventually dedicated sensor arrays with Intel RealSense and Google Tango. If Apple’s design and marketing are differentiators to current AR players, then the company’s existing mobile device install base—in both enterprise mobility and the consumer space—is a revolution in waiting. Software upgrades to allow official AR use on existing devices (likely leveraging Metaio) instantly enables this mobile footprint. Future devices bundling more advanced sensors serve as an extension and a continuation; experience and tools from Metaio feed the content ecosystem, alleviating some fear surrounding a walled-garden leading to content starvation; inter-device compatibility and cloud connectivity are already sorted, assuming any AR-powered device is running either iOS or OSX.
Augmented reality may be nascent and surrounded by unease, but there is unrealized potential for Apple in the space, whenever it chooses to enter. Any form Apple AR takes will be met with interest and excitement, and for that reason alone, some level of success is guaranteed. It is possible for Apple to cycle through market revolution (enterprise mobility and consumer mobile devices), to a period of stagnation, and again to revolutionizing a market (enterprise AR replacing mobile devices, and consumer AR supplementing existing users).