Apple released another part of their AR headset

Everyone is waiting for Apple to release their augmented reality headset, but it’s possible Apple has been slowly building their augmented reality headset for years now and distributing pieces of it to us over time.

In 2016, Tim Cook told analysts “AR can be really great. We have been and continue to invest a lot in this. We are high on AR for the long run.” At the end of that year, Apple released their first generation Airpods. Since then, Apple has gone on to sell 50M+ units of this audio and voice component of an augmented reality headset they will one day release.

In The Beginning

You could say sunglasses were the first augmented reality devices. They took us from being blinded by the sun to being able to see! Or maybe prescription glasses were the first AR. Some of us may take it for granted, but giving people with poor vision the ability to see with a couple of curved lenses is pure magic. And then there are transition lenses can even react to the environment! The thing is, expectations for technology changes over time. So let’s modify our definition slightly so it feels more inline with what we envision today:

Snapchat allows users to digitally try before you buy via their augmented reality features
Digital experience superimposed on the physical world, but where’s the augmented reality?

AR = Form Factor + UI + Experience

Augmented reality promises convenience and technology that either disappears or is fashionable. It’s clear that record players don’t meet this. How about the Sony Walkman? It certainly comes close: form is there in terms of being portable, but we still had to carry physical cassettes. The UI was lacking as there were limited track controls, and the experience itself was extremely limited because you only had as much music as the number of cassettes you felt like carrying around with you. I do concede that no technology has come close to matching the magic of making or receiving a mixtape of songs you recorded from the radio for or from a crush. But in almost all other ways, the Walkman was cool but not enough.

And Then It Clicked

Then came the iPod, and it changed the game. It improved upon the Walkman’s form because we had no more separate physical media. And yes mp3 players already existed, but none had solved the formula for:

The power of form factor + UI + experience

Top of Mind

Wireless headphones have been around for a while. Wired wireless headphones (two earbuds that are tethered together) have been around for a while. Even truly wireless earbuds, where it’s just two buds you stick in your ears, had been around for a few years before Apple started making them. So why are Airpods so amazing? Let’s apply our (form + UI + experience) equation again.

Exploded view of Airpods Pro, engineer’s perspective (src: iFixit Teardown)

Airpods Pro are augmented reality devices for our ears.

With noise cancellation and active transparency mode, Airpods Pro no longer solely provide digital information superimposed blindly onto my physical world. Now they provide a layer of digital information that responds to and changes my experience of the physical world in a way that feels invisible.

Exploded view of Airpods Pro, consumer perspective

Enjoy the journey, sure, but also get to your destination.

Now I did start this article by saying that Apple released another part of their AR headset, not just that Airpod Pros are augmented reality devices. We will see Apple’s augmented reality headset come at us in the same two ways Hemingway described how to go bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly.

It is my belief that Apple will not release an all-in-one headset device, but instead provide magical augmented reality experiences through a suite of wearables: a pair of lightweight glasses that work as part of a suite of wearables with your Airpods Pro for audio and voice, Apple Watch for gestures, and iPhone for connectivity and computing power. The glasses will only need a display, cameras, eye-tracking hardware, and batteries, allowing them to be lightweight and long-lasting, easily taken on and off without removing you from your entire wearable ecosystem, and to be available in many stylish and customizable options from Apple or many partners.

This is the essence of the wearables era — synergistic value that comes from having multiple wearables that can work together. Purists will say we need an all-in-one headset for augmented reality to be real. Their AR future is far off. From my perspective, there is already magic everywhere.

TL;DR

AR & Emerging Tech Strategy Expert | Venture Partner @IndicatorVC | Founder @BostonARmeetup

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