When the iPod came out Apple managed to get back on the map by making a brand new technology that was easy for almost anyone to use. Fifteen-years later, as I write this on my iMac, Apple's share of the smartphone market is second only to Samsung. So I can see why the promise of Apple AR has created a lot of buzz. But if we've learned anything from VR, it's that we need to set realistic expectations.
I'm clearly a huge belieVR (heh...) and that made me, like a lot of people, a bit overzealous about the possibilities 2016 would bring. Many were left sorely disappointed. Personally, I think disappointment is the wrong way of looking at it but it's a natural hangover after too much hype. The biggest problem, though, was the absurd standards that were set for VR in the beginning of last year, before people actually got their hands on high-end devices.
There are so many things we don't know about what Apple is working on. Articles roam the internet trying to make sense of a million hypotheticals. Right now Apple is facing an enormous challenge, and that's something we have to understand first before we can speculate what Apple's future in AR might looks like. That, and something more than rumors.
Pokémon GO AR isn't going to cut it.
If you know me, you know I'm slightly annoyed that Pokémon GO is considered AR. But I guess it's like saying gif instead of jif -- some of us need to just concede to the masses.
The thing is, AR didn't make the game cool -- the game made AR cool. It was going to be successful regardless In fact, the AR in the game is fun for, like, a week. A symptom of the game's success was greater awareness of this newfangled augmented reality. That does not mean Niantic was first to the rally. There are a bunch of applications that have employed the same, if not better, AR -- Sony Eye Toy, Google Effects and, of course, Snapchat, to name a few -- but only now has the term augmented reality been used so freely.
It needs to actually augment reality.
Snapchat started doing true AR before Pokémon GO and yet the latter is more often referenced in the space. And when I say true AR, I mean context- and environment-aware digital overlays that can detect objects in reality. Pokémon can't sit on your couch. They can't jump up and down on your desk. You can move your phone around to make it seem like they can, but the application can't detect and accommodate real spaces or objects the way other apps have and can. So the iPhone will need to do something that is far cooler and can't be done easily, or at all, without AR. Otherwise, it's just another Pokémon.
You need to need it, and know it'll work.
Early VR adopters understand there are going to be kinks because they believe in the technology enough to opt-in, and often at a steep price. It is such a proactive experience it doesn't just happen to you. Your friend can't show you the full experience they are having inside their headset. AR on a phone, on the other hand, is a much more passive experience. You don't have to commit to the experience in the same way -- you can simply turn it on and off the way you do with any mobile application. That means a lot of people who don't care about AR will buy an iPhone and just happen to see this cool new feature. But they aren't going to buy the phone for AR. To lock in the mainstream audience, it needs to be both seamless and essential, or else it's just novelty.
It needs to be 'Apple simple'.
Apple products are popular because they are easy. I recently converted from an iPhone to an Android phone, and even though the latter is much better (in my opinion), the upkeep can be a pain in the ass. I have to constantly clear my junk files, kill battery-draining apps, clean out my memory -- things that I never did with my iPhone, and it worked well enough. That's why my grandma only uses Apple products even though all she needs is Facetime and Facebook.
So imagine giving her a VR headsets, or worse, an AR headset. I have to troubleshoot my headsets constantly, but I'm ok with that since I want cutting edge tech. Apple's trade-off with consumers is: although they can't customize their experience, get access to the same range of Android apps or update their hardware as often, once that baby's on it's effortless (most of the time). And high-end AR experiences are years away from being effortless.
Headsets (and glasses) don't look cool, so you need a really good reason to wear them.
There have been a lot of rumors swirling around that Apple is investing most of its effort into glasses. I feel like this is where I need to mention Google Glass. Let's face it, they looked ridiculous. Only, like, five people ever wore them in public at the same time, which just made other people want to wear them less because those five people stook out like a sore thumb. Unless Apple is making AR glasses that look like, well, glasses, widespread adoption will need to happen fast so people feel comfortable wearing them in public. This is actually one advantage VR has over AR: because it completely immerses you, you probably won't use your headset in public. So you can still keep your dignity and use VR, too.
But isn't AR on a phone good enough?
AR has more potential for a mainstream audience than VR right now, mainly because of Pokémon GO. People understand Pokémon-like AR, so there is a standard to which people can compare Apple. But that puts Apple in the Cardboard conundrum: Google Cardboard has increased VR awareness but also downgraded people's expectations for higher-end -- and expensive -- devices.
Calling what you see in both the Cardboard and the Vive "VR" mistakenly equates the experiences, which is why Pokémon GO is ruining AR's reputation in the same way. Apple now has to make a case for a peripheral when the appeal of the iPhone is that it's one device that does everything you need. Not only that, glasses provide the same hurdle that VR headsets do in that Apple will need to get consumers to try something that they can only understand after trying it.
I will admit that if any company can gain people's trust before they deliver, it's Apple. I dare you to find someone as fanatical about HTC as the guy in the front of the line when the new iPhone comes out. After sleeping outside the store for three days, he essentially pays Apple to beta test a handset from the first batch, which is bound to have a glitch. He then has to schlep back to the store again and ends up thanking the "genius" for replacing his phone, rather than just getting a phone that works in the first place. What other brand can do that?
Peripherals make being mobile more difficult.
But even if there are people who treat iPhone releases like Black Friday, the handset is still a core device, not a peripheral. Look at the Apple Watch, for example. It's supposed to enhance the iPhone experience, but if the handset is good enough on it's own, why would people buy another device that costs $270+? Most people don't. To avoid this, Apple could theoretically make the glasses essential to the iPhone experience so consumers feel like they need them, but that only marginalizes the phone itself.
Now the handset isn't enough and users need to lug around another device with it. That flies in the face of what a smartphone is. Its appeal is that it has everything you need, and it's so small, light and thin you can take it anywhere. There is a reason successful mobile games don't require a controller, or mobile phone cases now double as wallets: people want to carry as little as possible but bring with them as much as they can.
Quality AR is way further out than we think.
We know Apple won't put anything out that sucks. They'll wait if they have to to get it right, and that could take a long time. Maybe they will add some AR features to the next smartphone as an amuse bouche, or maybe that's sort of what they are trying to do with Clips. But anything truly immersive is going to take awhile. Since VR is developing alongside AR, in five years manufacturers will bundle the best of both worlds into mixed reality devices. At that point, AR will be relegated to enterprise applications and consumers will crave something even better and more affordable.
Money is everything.
Affordability is going to be a big factor for the general consumer, as we've seen with mobile VR headsets. Ranging from $49 to $99, roughly five million mobile VR headsets were shipped last year as opposed to the less than two million PC and console devices shipped, which cost upwards of $400 for the headset alone. VR needs to prove itself before people are willing to dole out the cash, and it hasn't yet. Now AR stands in the shadow of VR's gap of disappointment, which means Apple has to overcome someone else's perceived failures. They will need to distance themselves from VR's reputation in order to charge premium prices for an AR device. But if they undercharge, the device may be perceived as unfinished or cheap. So even if they are able to overcome the myriad of challenges they face, strategic pricing could be the one thing that makes or breaks their AR success.
There's a lot to be excited about in the AR space, and Apple has a great chance of being a pioneer. But too much speculation without knowing what to speculate on is what caused premature over-investment in the VR industry. A lot of why that market is facing a trough of disillusionment is because there was an expectation set with no evidence for it.
The truth is, we don't know what Apple's cooking up because we haven't even seen the menu yet. Speculations are creating an exquisite corpse; Apple gave us a line on a blank piece of paper and we're all turning into a Picasso painting. Recognizing the challenges they face is essential right now if we want AR to succeed, because if VR taught us anything, it's that even the biggest companies need time to get it right.