Apple CEO Tim Cook believes that AR will be bigger than the iPhone, but building a device won't be easy

While most of the buzz in the technology space surrounds virtual reality, Apple appears to be focussing entirely on augmented reality.

While most of the buzz in the technology space surrounds virtual reality (VR), Apple appears to be focussing entirely on augmented reality (AR). Reports suggest that Apple thinks AR is ‘the next big thing’.

AR differs from VR in that AR is designed to, as the name suggests, augment your surroundings rather than replace them. VR will transport you to another world entirely; AR will enhance the world around you. You might, for example, see an overlay of directions on the road while you’re cycling, see someone’s tweets hovering over their head while you’re chatting with them, and more.

Facebook has " target="_blank">bet big on VR in the social space while gamers get to choose between multiple VR headsets for gaming. Google has taken an entirely different approach to VR with its Cardboard platform.

The closest anyone has come to an AR experience for the masses is Niantic with Pokémon Go, though even that isn’t a very good example of the true potential of AR. Microsoft has done some amazing work with HoloLens, but that device is still a $3,000 prototype that only select few developers get to play with.

The competition

The main problem with enhancing your surroundings, digitally, is understanding them in the first place. The simplest implementation of AR is placing a heads-up display (HUD) in front of your eyes. It is like a transparent, virtual screen in front of you with some information on it. If you’ve seen fighter planes, you know what a HUD looks like.

This, essentially, is what Google did with its $1,500 Google Glass device. What you saw was simply a little screen in front of your eyes and you could interact with it. There was also a camera so you could take photos, apps-integration so you could, say, read messages or browse recipes while cooking, check Google Maps while travelling, and so on. Think of it as a kind of visual hands-free device.

Google Glass was too expensive (if you do the math, the price comes to around Rs 1,00,000) and its functionality too limited.

Snap Inc.’s ‘Spectacles’ might appear to be contenders for the consumer-grade AR crown, but these Spectacles are only a camera strapped onto a pair of sunglasses. They’re even more limited than Google Glass, but arguably, more focused.

 Apple CEO Tim Cook believes that AR will be bigger than the iPhone, but building a device wont be easy

Google Glass. Image: Getty Images

The point I’m trying to make is that none of these offer a true AR experience. Google Glass simply put a simplified display in front of your eyes and Spectacles, a camera.

Microsoft’s HoloLens is, so far, the best argument for AR. The demo videos shown by the company are simply amazing and truly showcase the potential for AR. But even Microsoft’s $3,000 headset is limited. Price aside, the device is quite large and your AR experience is limited to a small window within your field of view.

Microsoft's HoloLens: Image: Getty images

Microsoft's HoloLens: Image: Getty images

Microsoft’s implementation still works because it uses depth sensing to determine how to place virtual objects in your field of view. The software giant has also worked on helping its software understand walls, tables, doors, etc., i.e. more context to work with.

Google’s Project Tango is a good example of this. It uses depth-sensing cameras and a variety of sensors to determine the device’s location in 3D as well as to map the environment. This platform is still more a proof-of-concept than a consumer-ready AR platform though.

For a true AR experience, you need to be able to perceive the world in 3D, to understand the context of objects in the world (a chair is for sitting, a table for placing things, etc.) and to have software that can relate to and enhance these objects and the surroundings.

This requires a decent amount of processing power.

Then there are other challenges. The device will need to be compact, offer great battery life and most importantly, be desirable.

This is not easy.

Is Apple already late to the AR party?

Tim Cook is very serious about AR, reports Bloomberg. Judging by Apple’s hiring trends, Apple’s real work on AR only started in 2015, when it hired Mike Rockwell to head its AR division. Rockwell ran the ‘new hardware and new technology group’ at Dolby and also consulted for a firm that sold AR headsets before joining Apple.

Getty Images

Getty Images

The company has also hired a number of 3D animators and special effects experts from the film industry and experts in the field of VR and game development. Apple even transferred engineers from its iPhone, optics and camera divisions, adds Bloomberg.

In contrast, Microsoft has been working on AR since 2010, when it first introduced the Kinect for Xbox 360. The HoloLens, in fact, can be seen as an extension of the same.

Still, this doesn’t mean that Apple is already out of the running. Even HoloLens development didn’t start in earnest until only a few years ago, and Apple has the means and the resources to hire any number of experienced engineers to deal with the problem. Better yet, there really aren’t any other significant competitors to speak of.

The rear camera on the iPhone 7 Plus

The rear camera on the iPhone 7 Plus

With the iPhone 7 Plus and its dual-cameras, Apple has already laid the foundations for good AR.

Building an AR device isn’t a challenge; the real challenge is in designing one that people will want and one that they can afford. Apple, with its brand value and tight control of its ecosystem might just pull it off.

However, the Apple Watch was meant to be one such device, but we all know how that went: As well designed as the Watch is, it’s still not the game-changer that Apple claimed it would be.

On the strength of Microsoft’s HoloLens demos alone I’m convinced that AR is the future, I’m just not sure who will finally take us there.

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