Apple is betting big on augmented reality

With 1,000 engineers reportedly working on augmented reality projects, virtual reality could be the company's next big hit.

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Over the past year, Apple has constantly indicated a serious interest in augmented reality (AR) over virtual reality. In October, CEO Tim Cook told BuzzFeed that AR is “profound” and has a higher potential than virtual reality. This has followed a string of comments praising AR, such as one which said that AR could become an even more important and ubiquitous part of our lives than our mobile devices are today.

But according to a Bloomberg report, Apple is making it clear that this is not some fanciful whim but a serious investment. The report states that “Apple has built a team combining the strengths of its hardware and software veterans with the expertise of talented outsiders” and is looking at building devices which could compliment or even surpass the iPhone. These efforts include acquiring engineers and firms with AR expertise from different companies. And while Apple is making the biggest push, other tech companies like Facebook and Alphabet are exploring this technology as well.

Apple’s efforts speak to AR’s potential to revolutionize our lives, but it will need to build an affordable, mass-market AR device with this technology. In doing so, it will have to look at past AR failures such as Google Glass and learn what and what not to do.

The potential of augmented reality

Many tech analysts always connect AR and VR technology, but there is a reason why Apple and market researcher IDC believe that AR has greater long-term potential. While being immersed in an entirely new world as VR promises is interesting, people will still crave being connected to the real world and human contact. Augmented reality promises to enhance human contact instead of cutting us off from it. The success of Pokémon Go, which created new human bonds from fellow trainers walking about and sparked a worldwide craze, is but one example of AR’s potential.

This potential means that other companies, such as those working in web technology like Check People Design, LLC,  are looking at augmented reality. In fact, most consumers are probably more familiar with Snap and Alphabet’s forays into this technology. Snap in its past IPO talked a great deal about its foray into AR with its Lenses and Snapchat Spectacles, and Alphabet made the first foray with its Google Glass experiment.

But while other companies are making their own efforts, Apple has put together a dream team of researchers and companies with all sorts of different experiences. By taking engineers and people from companies like Alphabet, Apple can has a huge amount of expertise and can make big strides in making augmented reality a reality.

Glasses, phones, and other devices

Putting people together is important, but Apple’s AR developments will live or die on how it can use this technology. This can take the form of integrating AR with existing Apple devices or creating entirely new devices.

For now, Apple will start by seeing how AR can play a role with the iPhone. The Bloomberg report notes that Apple is looking at implementing AR with the iPhone’s camera, which would let users “place virtual effects and objects on a person.” Snapchat users should note the similarities, and developments like this show that Apple is interested in seeing how AR can be used to improve communication between one another.

But creating different AR-related devices represents new challenges for Apple, as the Google Glass’s failure demonstrates. While it is possible to view the Google Glass as a device which was ahead of its time and which has actually been used successfully by industrial enterprises, there are lessons which the Apple needs to appreciate if it wants to market AR devices to mass consumers.

Some lessons from the Google Glass include slashing the price so that it is affordable to everyone and promoting it as a more hip accessory instead of some weird techie device. But above all else, Apple needs to make it clear why people should want a new AR device. Google Glass fundamentally failed to do that. People thus came up with reasons of their own, most notably the idea that Google Glass was a tool for creeps to surreptitiously record others which thus worsened the social stigma surrounding it.

Unfortunately, Apple has a record of building devices and hoping that a purpose for said device is figured out later, as the Apple Watch demonstrates. So while Apple is investing heavily into this technology, it will have to be careful and not run ahead of peoples’ expectations.

Given the intense competition in AR development, it is hard to say whether Apple will succeed in getting ahead of the pack and become to AR what the iPhone is for mobile. But it will not be for a lack of trying. And as augmented reality surpasses virtual reality over the long run, Apple’s wholehearted willingness to embrace this technology gives it a major advantage, especially if it can avoid the mistakes of past competitors and build something which can work as part of and alongside existing devices.

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