Tim Cook wants Apple to make your life better with AR

Augment reality with touch screens anywhere

Apple CEO, Tim Cook, is hyping Apple’s augmented reality plans again, stressing his company’s goal to create solutions that “amplify” human contact.

Cook talks

"Augmented reality will take some time to get right, but I do think that it's profound,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We might ... have a more productive conversation, if both of us have an AR experience standing here, right? And so I think that things like these are better when they're incorporated without becoming a barrier to our talking. ... You want the technology to amplify it, not to be a barrier."

These comments echo similar statements last month when Cook told Good Morning America: “There's virtual reality and there's augmented reality, both of these are incredibly interesting… But my own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far, because this gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present, talking to each other, but also have other things -- visually -- for both of us to see.”

There may be some hint of how these might work in his other statement that, “Maybe it's something we're talking about, maybe it's someone else here who's not here present but who can be made to appear to be present."

Cook has referred to these technologies more than once in recent months. In July he said the company remains “high on AR in the long run” and referred to it as a “core technology” in August. These monthly references to the technology could be an attempt to deflect attention away from other unreleased Apple technologies, of course…

Oh the humanity

His focus on the human element suggests the company seeks to use these technologies to support existing products, such as FaceTime, messaging and educational tools, but there will be implications across its platforms.

For one less obvious idea of how these solutions may work, take a look at China’s Alibaba Group’s newly introduced VR Pay virtual reality payment system that lets you shop and pay for items just by nodding your head. Imagine if this were part of a virtualized online Apple retail experience, accessed using Siri and Apple Pay. There are implications in retail, smart city infrastructure, medicine and more.

The market is ripening. One report claimed 23 percent of US consumers would buy an Apple VR headset. A report from Juniper Research suggests revenues from VR (Virtual Reality) headsets, peripherals and 360º cameras will reach over $50 billion by 2021, up tenfold from an estimated $5 billion in sales this year. Strategy Analytics claims around two million (3 percent) of UK consumers will purchase a VR headset by the end of 2016, but predicts around 47 percent penetration by 2022. 89 percent of which will be smartphone-based.

Big investments

Apple has been making significant investments in technologies that may support its work in this space. It has acquired Emotient, Metaio, Faceshift, Flyby Media and is reported to be speaking with other companies too.

The company has also seeded the market with mobile devices that carry more processing power than any other smartphone or tablet available today, meaning even iPhone 6S users would have a chance of running these solutions if Apple shipped them tomorrow.

Apple continues to invest in ambient technologies that may support its plans, think how AirPods and Apple Watch may lend themselves to AR experiences, and already has a deep patent pool in related technologies, a pool that goes back decades.

Hiring blitz

BuzzFeed notes that Apple has also been aggressively recruiting talents that may be able to support its plans in the space. The FT recently claimed Apple has hundreds of staff “from a series of carefully targeted acquisitions” working with others “poached from companies that are working on next-generation headset technologies.”

Among other hires it has hired VR research scientist Yury Petrov from Facebook’s Oculus division, Magic Leap’s Zeyu Li and Doug Bowman, the Director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech

What’s the plan?

We’ve seen lots of first movers enter the VR space, everyone from Google to Facebook, the latter this week acquired Irish VR start-up, InfiniLED. Sony introduced its PlayStation VR headset that lets you enjoy 360-degree gaming experiences, but Cook’s statements suggests gaming experiences are not central to his company’s plans, despite the huge success of Pokemon Go.

However, this is not just about the market. In truth this is Apple preparing itself for the next era of computing, an era in which computers become pervasive, virtual and invisible. They will be as small as your watch, visible on any display you happen to want to use, and spoken to through voice and gesture, keyboard optional. That’s the only way to see the implication of the Metaio acquisition, given that company was developing “Thermal Touch”, a system which turns nearly any surface into a touch screen.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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