Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And as we approach WWDC 2022, there’s a lot of smoke around AR and VR. In some ways, this is going to be a huge inflection point, in other ways, it’s probably going to be a letdown.
Remember when the iPod was announced? Some folks called it lame because it didn’t meet their expectations.
The same thing will be true of anything Apple wants us to put on our face. It’s going to less impressive technically than any of the currently shipping products. And that’s good, because you don’t make fundamental changes by tweaking existing technologies. A Nomad audio player was a tweak. An Oculus headset is a tweak.
Everything we’ve seen to date with VR has been an attempt to bring information to a 3D world. Headsets are just a means to project that 3D environment so our eyes can see it.
I think Apple’s approach with AR will be completely different: they will bring 3D to an information world.
We all have the greatest source of information humankind has ever known in our pocket or purse. Much of that information relates to the world around us: weather, transportation, shopping, dining, etc. Relating that data to our physical space will be a powerful tool.
All the AR examples we’ve seen on Apple’s devices hint at this direction. They take the information on our phone and place it at derived 3D coordinates. Where people get tripped up in these demos is where the results are shown: on a standard screen.
I don’t think that’s Apple’s final goal, because any current screen technology will block your view of the real world. It’s also why I think 3D headsets will remain a niche technology: people have innate need to see what’s going on around them.
Our current screens also use a lot of power. And that means batteries. And that means weight. Not what I want on my face, for sure.
Apple knows this and that’s why I think a new display system is the thing they’re taking time to get right. We may or may not see this new display at WWDC. I can remember a time when all we had for an iPad was a simulator.
The changes caused by a new display will be incremental. There will certainly be technical limitations in the product that are imposed by size and weight: Apple will improve on those things as components allow.
Other changes will happen because no one, including Apple, really knows how this display will be used by normal folks (we, I should note, are not normal folks). The first Apple Watch tried to do a lot of things: iteration got rid of things no one used, and improved the things everyone wanted.
It’s likely that a first iteration will also be a “satellite device” where the iPhone does the heavy lifting. Much like the original iPod relied on a Mac. The realityOS could be nothing more than widgets for a new display on your face.
That will feel lame until you realize something else: after two decades, the basic form factor and functionality of that first iPod is now an essential part of our lives and we call it an iPhone. Don’t underestimate Apple’s ability to iterate.