Apple is increasingly focusing its resources on creating something revolutionary in the domain of augmented reality, or AR, and CEO Tim Cook is clearly on a warpath to developing products that are worthy of the Apple brand.
But there are clearly several challenges that the Cupertino smartphone giant will have to overcome that aren’t necessarily the same as for other companies – even big ones like Microsoft and Facebook. What are these hurdles, and how will Apple vault over them?
There’s no doubt Apple is serious about AR. In a bid to create the next iconic product in AR, the company has invested a tremendous amount of time, effort and money, and deployed a veritable army of skilled resources to achieve their objectives for AR.
Apple currently has a crack team that has experience with Facebook’s Oculus and Microsoft’s HoloLens. They’ve also acquired smaller AR hardware companies, and even have 3D and Hollywood digital-effects specialists working for them.
To achieve their goals for a multi-product AR portfolio, Apple is simultaneously working on several AR-related technologies. Digital spectacles are on the table, as are AR features designed for future iPhones. Some of the products are years away, but some features could come to iPhones much sooner than we expect.
But Apple has challenges that other companies don’t have. They can innovate, but they can’t afford their gadgets to be bulky and uncomfortable to use. For example, they’ve already ruled out VR headsets because, as Cook said last year, “few people want to be enclosed in something.” VR has an entertainment component strongly bound to it like a ball and chain, but AR includes the real world and is, therefore, a lot friendlier towards practical applications that enhance our lives, rather than replace them like VR does.
One example is an iPhone being able to beam imagery to a wirelessly tethered pair of AR glasses, which can then display map information, play a movie and deliver an exhaustive list of content types.
Similar to what Apple did with Apple Watch during the early research and development stages, they’ve hired for the AR team internally and from outside sources. For example, Apple recruited hardware and new technologies expert Mike Rockwell back in 2015, and he runs the AR team now at Apple. There are also other tech celebrities: like Fletcher Rothkopf, design team lead for Apple Watch; Tomlinson Holman of THX fame; Cody White, lead engineer for Amazon Lumberyard, an AWS and Twitch-integrated AAA game engine; Avi Bar-Zeev, whose previous projects include HoloLens and Google Earth; Yury Petrov from Oculus research; Duncan McRoberts, former director of software development at Meta and so on.
This laundry list of celebrity talent is ably led by Apple’s Dan Riccio, head of iPhone and iPad hardware engineering teams, which also have people from Weta Digital, the new Zealand special-effects company that shot to fame with movies like Avatar and King Kong, and others from the world of 3D animation, optical lens technologies, camera experts and talent from their many acquisitions of the past two years.
But all of this isn’t going to automatically result in a stunning product that represents the next generation of Apple devices for augmented reality.
In truth, the challenges are not merely technical or linked to production or any such thing. The real challenge is to create, as I mentioned, products that are worth of bearing the Apple logo.
Apple has long been known for thinner, lighter, more powerful, more UI-and-design-focused products than any other company on the planet. That’s the real challenge they face in the AR space. It’s not about the talent or the resources they can pull together. It’s about designing something that’s truly awesome that will blow other AR products out of the water and set a benchmark for all future AR hardware and software technology efforts.
Apple now has hundreds of engineers working on various components of AR. But in the end, their first AR product will be setting the tone for success – or show them the same path down which Google Glass was forced to go. Apple can’t afford to release an AR product that makes its users look like cyborgs. It has to be something that integrates smoothly into a person’s daily life – non-intrusive, yet extremely practical and desirable.
In simple words, another iPhone. And that’s a tall order.
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