IDC Forecasts Strong Growth for AR and VR Headsets, with VR and Commercial AR Biggest (Jun 19, 2017)
Apple today upgraded its iPad Pro lineup and announced a new version of iOS with big changes for the iPad as well as support for AR. The major theme in both the hardware and software aspects of the iPad announcements was productivity, where Apple continues to push the iPad Pro as a potential laptop replacement. The hardware changes improve performance across the board while specifically tweaking the ratio between screen and device size for the smaller iPad Pro in a change that likely foreshadows what Apple will do in a more dramatic way in the Fall with the iPhone. Just as the Mac lineup became more powerful with today’s announcements, so the iPad is becoming more powerful as a potential computer replacement, and the iOS changes specific to the iPad further that message, with support for a much wider range of multitasking scenarios and other more sophisticated features. For the first time, the iPad version of iOS feels like it’s gaining a truly distinct identity that’s really optimized for heavy-duty productivity tasks, and it will be interesting to see how the OS feels on the iPads not designed for pro use, because a number of user interface elements and conventions will change as a result. However, the other big change in today’s iOS announcements is support for AR through ARKit for developers, which is Apple’s first foray into AR. Notably, whereas the VR support in the Mac is primarily aimed for today at creation of VR content, Apple’s AR push is much more end-user centric, and will enable developers to quickly and easily create a range of AR apps and games for the iPhone and iPad. Whereas smartphone-centric AR today is very photo- and video-centric and dominated by companies like Snapchat and more recently Facebook, Apple’s platform approach could dramatically expand the use of AR in smartphone apps and move smartphone-based AR forward significantly in terms of mainstream adoption.
Though Google spent much of its I/O keynote talking about apps and features like Photos and the Assistant, it did devote a few minutes to the topic of AR and VR, which will have a second deeper-dive keynote of their own tomorrow. On the VR side, the key announcement is that Google is extending the Daydream platform beyond mobile VR to standalone headsets, which in the first instance will be built by partners Lenovo and HTC and supported with chips from Qualcomm. Daydream so far has been limited by the fact that the biggest Android smartphone vendor has its own competing platform, so the news that Samsung’s Galaxy S8 phones will support Daydream through a software update in the summer is a big deal. My guess is that Samsung will still favor its own Gear VR system with its usual bundling and discounting deals, but the fact that Daydream View and other compatible headsets will now work with Samsung devices should increase its appeal. Daydream’s system is better than Samsung’s in a number of ways, though the recent Gear VR update closes the gap a bit, so the playing field should be a leveled a little going forward. Also worth noting are a couple of AR announcements, including a new “Tango phone” to support Google’s indoor mapping technology, and VPS, an indoor equivalent of GPS which will enable precise directions within large stores and the like. Neither of those feels remotely mass market yet, which means Google’s AR efforts are far more marginal than the phone-based efforts from Facebook and Snapchat (and likely soon Apple too). Interestingly, VR head Clay Bavor outlined his vision for the space in a blog post today too, and it’s remarkably similar to Microsoft’s in that it envisions a continuum or spectrum that includes both VR and AR, though Bavor’s favored term is immersive computing rather than mixed reality and he’s less pejorative about the VR and AR terms everyone is already using.
Snapchat Debuts Sponsored Filters For the Rear-Facing Camera (May 15, 2017)
When Facebook announced its AR strategy at F8 a few weeks back, a key component was filters for the rear-facing camera. At least in demos, those filters looked more impressive than what Snapchat had until then offered for the back camera on a phone, interacting in sophisticated ways with real-world elements in much the way Snapchat’s selfie filters do with faces. But the other big difference between Facebook and Snapchat’s approaches to filters is that for now at least Facebook treats them as an open developer platform, while at Snapchat they’re first-party only other than for advertisers. And today Snapchat announced that it will be debuting its first sponsored rear-facing filters, starting with a promotion for a teen romance movie. That’s clearly a new place for Snapchat to put ads within its interface, which will be handy as its user growth continues to be slow. But it also means that Snapchat’s rear-facing filters will continue to be a very narrow, curated experience with the occasional ad, while Facebook’s equivalent may in time offer a much richer, broader set of filters for the rear-facing camera. I would guess that Facebook will in time offer monetization options for developers too (and therefore take a cut) but for now the business models remain quite different, which means that even though from a feature perspective the two will compete, Facebook won’t be offering brands equivalent ad products to the ones Snapchat offers.
Weekly Narrative Video – AR vs VR (May 12, 2017)
This week’s Narrative Video covers the “AR vs VR” narrative, and is available now to subscribers on the AR vs VR narrative page. In this video, I discuss the debate about terminology between AR, VR, and Microsoft’s preferred “Mixed Reality”. But I also talk about the current state of both VR and AR and how I see both playing out over the rest of the year. The narrative has been in the news this week, with Microsoft making announcements about mixed reality at Build, and Magic Leap both reaching out to developers and creatives and allegedly readying another round of funding. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial to see this and other Weekly Narrative Videos, all this week’s posts and the narrative essays, which are exclusive to subscribers.
Magic Leap Invites Developers and Creatives to Get in Touch (May 11, 2017)
I’m at Facebook’s F8 today and one of the two big announcements from the first day keynote is this Camera Effects Platform, which is Facebook’s first big push into AR. That’s a good thing, because Facebook has so far made its big bet on its narrower cousin, VR, through Oculus. AR has the potential to be much bigger, and Facebook getting into this space will only accelerate adoption and awareness. Sensibly, though, I don’t think any of this will be described as AR in most user-facing settings – it’ll have more user friendly names like Camera Effects, Frames, and so on. But building a platform for AR experiences including some pretty sophisticated ones means Facebook is finally serious about AR both from a first-party and developer perspective, which is a good thing. The stuff shown off on stage today looked much cleverer than what Snapchat launched this morning, and although it won’t all be available right away I suspect Facebook is actually going to be ahead here, especially when it comes to the rear-facing camera. In fact, there’s a possible scenario in which Snapchat continues to do AR better for the selfie camera, while Facebook provides better AR experiences for the outside world. More broadly, this means Facebook will now be a serious player in a field which includes not just itself an Snapchat but also Microsoft, and will soon include Magic Leap, Apple, and many others too. There are therefore big questions to ask about who will be able to attract developers and help them get a return on their investment with good monetization. I would expect to see some similar stuff from Apple at WWDC in June and possibly even more in September with new iPhone hardware too.
Microsoft’s cheaper mixed reality experience is similar to HoloLens, but there are limitations – Mashable (Apr 7, 2017)
When Microsoft held its Surface event back in October last year, one of the quick announcements it made towards the end was that OEMs would be producing VR headsets starting at $299. At the time, I said “Microsoft’s promotion of VR headsets from its OEM partners today is the first sign we’ve seen that Microsoft might be rethinking its focus on augmented rather than virtual reality. Given that HoloLens is likely to continue to struggle to achieve mainstream appeal, supporting a more consumer-friendly VR push by laptop makers is a smart move, although $299 PC-based VR solutions may struggle against smartphone-based versions at $100-200 which are more portable.” I still feel pretty much the same way about this, and it’s interesting that – despite the Windows Mixed Reality branding – these are basically VR rather than AR headsets. That’s a concession that VR is where the action is today, is the space at least some consumers already understand, and is frankly where all the content is today too. These new devices also reinforce the obvious compromises made when bringing price points down: the lower PC standards and cheaper hardware will make these VR headsets less powerful than either HoloLens or Oculus or HTC Vive hardware. There’s therefore an important question about whether this in-between space will gain any traction versus the cheap and basic mobile VR experiences provided by Gear VR and Daydream VR at one end and the high-end stuff being produced by HTC, Oculus, and Playstation.
Apple GPU Supplier Imagination Tech Says Apple Plans to Build its Own GPU in 1-2 Years (Apr 3, 2017)
This already feels likely to be one of the biggest news items of the week (incidentally, you can now use the Like button below to vote for this post if you agree – the posts that get the most votes are more likely to be included in my News Roundup Podcast at the end of the week). There have been ongoing reports that Apple would like to build more of its own in-house technology, and GPUs have seemed at least a candidate given that Apple was said for a while to be mulling an acquisition of the company, and has been bringing Imagination Tech employees on board since the deal didn’t go ahead. The GPU obviously has a number of existing applications, but GPU technology has increasingly been used for AI and machine learning, so that’s an obvious future direction, along with Apple’s reported investment in AR. Apple’s ownership of its A-series chips (and increasingly other chips like its M and W series) is a key source of competitive advantage, and the deeper it gets into other chip categories, the more it’s likely to extend that advantage in these areas. This is, of course, also a unique example of Apple making a direct statement about a future strategy (albeit via a third party): as Apple is IMG’s largest customer, it had to disclose the guidance from Apple because it’s so material to its future prospects – the company’s share price has dropped 62% as of when I’m writing this.
There’s not a ton here that’s new about Apple and Facebook’s efforts, but the article does share some new details about Magic Leap, which is said to be getting ready to launch this year at a price point north of $1000. As I’ve said before, for all the complaints from Magic Leap that people are underestimating its technology, until it actually shows more than a few hand-picked people, those complaints are unreasonable. This is a company that has massively hyped its own product (including releasing rendered rather than actual footage) while refusing to share any actual details about its product. There certainly are people (some of them investors) who appear to be very impressed by it, but not until it launches will mainstream tech reporters and others know whether the product lives up to the hype. In the meantime, other companies like Apple and Facebook are ramping up their efforts, and even though Magic Leap may well beat them to market, it’s a small company with no brand recognition, and it will have to blow people away en masse if it’s to take a meaningful lead in the market when it launches.
Apple’s Next Big Thing: Augmented Reality – Bloomberg (Mar 20, 2017)
Yet more evidence that Apple sees a far more promising future in augmented than virtual reality, something Tim Cook has already affirmed several times. There’s little concrete in this article – lots of discussion on the people Apple has leading and working on its AR project, the kinds of technologies they’re working on, and some features they’re experimenting with, but really nothing about what Apple is actually likely to launch. I’ve often said that Apple tends to build up to new technologies slowly, and often subtly, incorporating the necessary hardware in devices like the iPhone long before it actually takes advantage of them, and I think the dual cameras in the iPhone 7 Plus are an example of that. The same technology that powers Portrait Mode and 2x optical zoom could easily be incorporated into some kind of AR technology on the iPhone, and I think it’s likely this fall’s iPhones will start to show some of what they’re capable of using these and other components. But Apple will probably also use the iPhone to build up to something separate over time, like glasses, something this article seems to confirm. For now, VR definitely has far more public attention than AR, and it’ll take someone like Apple getting into the business to change perceptions and raise awareness of the latter.
Microsoft has apparently renamed its Windows Holographic platform as Windows Mixed Reality, which seems to be a reflection of the broadening of the platform from its original narrow AR focus to something broader, including the release of a number of VR headsets that was announced a couple of months ago. At the time, I saw that as a concession that Microsoft’s original vision wasn’t coming to fruition fast enough or at big enough scale, and that it needed to broaden its scope to encompass the areas that are hotter in the short term, notably VR. That was particularly important for its OEM partners, most of whom were never going to build a HoloLens like headset but who likely wanted to build more accessible VR gear. This name change reinforces my sense that Microsoft is realizing that it needs to think more broadly if it wants to play a serious role here in the near term, and that probably also means building more first party VR gear for Xbox among other things.
Tim Cook Enthuses Over Augmented Reality – The Independent (Feb 10, 2017)
This is probably the meatiest commentary we’ve had on augmented reality from Tim Cook yet, though he’s spoken enthusiastically about it in the past. Read the last two paragraphs from this interview for the full take, but it’s worth pulling out several points: Tim Cook likes AR over VR because it keeps you in the world rather than taking you out of it; it’s for everyone rather than a niche (by implication, unlike VR, which is most exciting at present for hardcore gamers); it’s as big a deal as the smartphone, and yet not a product but a feature or capability – he likens it to the silicon in the iPhone; and it’s going to take a while before it’s ready for the mainstream (which you can take as meaning it isn’t coming to the iPhone or Apple products just yet, or that it’ll be a niche technology even when it does – the former seems more likely, but who knows.) Lots to chew on here, but for me the silicon comparison is the most interesting – that strongly implies we’ll see this in an iPhone rather than a headset from Apple in the near term.
via The Independent (UK)
Magic Leap engineers scramble to finish prototype ahead of February board meeting – Business Insider (Feb 8, 2017)
This and the earlier reporting from the Information and others on Magic Leap have been so powerful precisely because the company combines secrecy and slightly outlandish claims about its future products, which just begs reporters to investigate and dig up this kind of dirt. Magic Leap has almost zero control over its narrative because it refuses to provide any concrete evidence to the broader world about the progress it’s making on its product, while evidence is mounting on the other side that the product is nowhere near ready. The same phenomenon can affect established companies too in areas where there’s widespread reporting about future business the company itself hasn’t commented on – see Apple’s car-centric Project Titan. In the case of Magic Leap, there are quite a few people who say they’ve seen a live demo which was impressive, but one of the key questions continues to be whether the company can deliver that experience in the form factor it claims to be working on, and this story casts some doubt on that idea. I’m not sure there’s any way for Magic Leap to turn the narrative around here unless it starts opening up significantly, something it seems unlikely to do.
via Business Insider
Snap Is Working on Smarter Lenses (AR) — The Information (Feb 1, 2017)
AR has seemed an obvious area for Snap to invest in, given its focus on cameras and camera-centric experiences, and its existing Lenses product. So it’s not that surprising to hear that the company is working on AR-style lenses for something other than mere selfies, using the rear-facing camera. It sounds fairly basic for now, and very much in keeping with the idea of superimposing objects onto the real world for taking and sharing pictures. But of course once the technology is there it could theoretically be repurposed for other things too, including a potential future version of Spectacles with AR capability which would overlay virtual content onto the real world seen through its glasses. Lots of potential here, and as ever it’s still very early days in AR (and in the broader AR/VR battle).
via The Information
Apple iPhone 8 rumors: Features may include facial recognition, laser sensor – Business Insider (Jan 18, 2017)
Cowen doesn’t have the same track record in predicting future iPhones as KGI, which has by far the best, so we should take all this with a pinch of salt. But it’s in keeping with the broad sense that Apple is very interested in augmented reality, and would need to put more sensors and other technology into its products to enable AR functions. I’m still intrigued by the idea of further splitting the iPhone line – there are already three sizes, and this research note posits a fourth, larger one, with exclusive access to an OLED screen and embedded fingerprint sensor. There’s some logic to that, because all the supply chain chatter suggests Apple would have a very hard time finding enough OLED technology to power all of the next generation of iPhones, so making it exclusive to the highest end device would limit demand to a smaller number. Even so, that device is likely to be in high demand, as was the 7 Plus with Jet Black finish, another phone with supply constraints.
Robert Scoble is an odd source – not strictly a reporter, and one with a very mixed track record when it comes to this kind of thing. So take it with a pinch of salt, but this is an interesting report given that Apple does seem to be very interested in AR. The timing is interesting here too – Scoble says the glasses might launch this year, which would be a big new product for Apple when it could really use one to reassure the faithful.