Three ways the AR phoney war could end
“I regard it as a big idea, like the smartphone. I think AR is that big, it’s huge.”
When Tim Cook speaks about the future, it’s worth listening. Not only because he leads one of the biggest R&D investors in the world, but because he so rarely utters anything that could be mistaken for a prediction.
As Apple’s iPhone X ad tells us, 2017 is the year when Augmented Reality (AR) became reality.
All the pieces are falling into place: Both Android and Apple have released developer tools for AR apps. The latest Apple and Samsung phones are fully AR-compatible, with better cameras, faster chips, and better sensors. And a first wave of apps has been released to demonstrate what all this power can do for the punters.
Waiting for Godot
But but but…. as people queue up to get their hands on an iPhone X, with all its superpowers, the promise of augmented reality is still over the next ridge.
Yes, IKEA’s new app can show you what its latest mauve concoction might look like in your living room. Dinosaurs can be magic-ed up in basketball courts. And you can measure the length of your shelf without the terrible bother of using a ruler.
But the power to project a sofa onto your carpet doesn’t quite match the rhetoric of the “profound day” that Tim Cook heralded when launching ARKit as part of iOS 11.
Let’s face it. Today, armed with the latest gadgets the world has to offer, AR still belongs more to Star Trek than Starbucks, is more relevant to coders than consumers, and smells more of puffery than profundity.
We’re living through augmented reality’s phoney war. A time when all the players have marched to the edges of the battlefield but the guns remain silent and the field empty. How will the battle begin, and where will it end? Here are three ways it could come to pass.
As with many high-powered technologies that never find mass market appeal, AR could become an amazing but niche tool for specialist users, such as gamers and professionals.
These are the areas where AR is already showing strong potential. Pokémon Go, which barely dipped its pokétoes in AR functionality, peaked at 20 million daily active users, more than Twitter. More recent games take the usual run of zombie, dinosaur, and first person shooters to the next level, with characters appearing to emerge and engage in real life.
One of the most promising opportunities are multi-player games that allow teams to take on a bewildering array of challenges that meld seamlessly into the world in front of them. Bringing intensive gaming experiences out of the living room has been a long-standing ambition for producers. Squeezed between high-end experiences and low-level smartphone time-killers, AR offers a new route to excite and enthral the gaming crowd.
Aside from games, AR will surely find important uses in the medical, engineering, and design industries, among others. Though as with almost all enterprise IT, take-up will be much slower than tech blogs breathlessly predict.
2. Decisive victory
If Tim Cook is even partly right, AR could become the new smartphone: an all-purpose platform that sneaks into every part of our daily lives.
If that’s the case, it will probably be because a killer app emerges in 2018 or 2019 that drives massive adoption in an unfathomably short space of time.
It could be triggered by an event like the Football World Cup. Or it could be an excellent execution of a mass use tool. Imagine AR Facetime, projecting your friends into the room with you; or think about the ability to “try on” clothes from online stores.
There’s one problem with this vision. Aside from certain on-the-go use cases, such as seeing online reviews tagged to real world restaurants, the incredible potential of AR seems unnecessarily constrained by the limits of the smartphone.
Mixing reality with virtual objects sounds magical… until you’re forced to see them through a 5" screen. Despite the bezel-less displays that are becoming smartphone standard, shoving all the virtual action into a narrow block of visual range is a huge block on AR’s potential.
Which is why the real action could take place far away from our precious bricks.
3. The battle moves elsewhere
We assume today that the only thing people will carry around — always and everywhere — is their phones. But a decade or two ago, almost no one carried a phone.
Now, with watches acting as phones, voice-based home assistants, and bluetooth ear pods, the smartphone revolution is leaving the smartphone behind.
If AR can truly offer a transformative experience, people will use whatever device they need to access it. That device will almost certainly be a pair of glasses or a headset, though it may one day migrate straight onto contact lenses. There’s no other way a virtual world can be fully enmeshed with the mundane one we see with our bare eyes.
As with any revolution, the consequences could be epic. Despite the absurdity of spending hours a day staring at tiny blobs of blue light, today’s smartphones are extremely addictive and highly absorbing. What would happen if people could fully immerse themselves in the online universe, mixing real and virtual at will?
None of this is guaranteed. As the Onion points out so beautifully in “Do You Remember Life Before the Segway?”, even the most vaunted technologies sometimes fall by the wayside.
But that hasn’t stopped the munitions factories at Apple, Samsung, and Facebook from whirring away, preparing for the moment when battle will be joined. For the rest of us, we can do nothing but enjoy this moment… when the guns were silent and the war had not yet begun.
If you liked this, please follow me on Medium or Twitter on @adamswersky. You may also enjoy Why the next iPhone may be the last, Your next smartphone is a watch, or Our economy keeps doubling in size. You won’t believe what happens next.