What it is: Apple has quietly been buying up companies that support their augmented reality goals including Flyby Media and Metaio.
While Oculus, Google, and Microosft have been making huge press announcements concerning their virtual reality projects, Apple has quietly been sitting on the sidelines. That either means Apple doesn’t have a virtual reality project at all (not likely) or that Apple is quietly developing their virtual reality projects until it’s ready.
While everyone else seems focused on virtual reality and advancing the technology behind virtual reality, few companies seem to be thinking about the practical applications of virtual reality. Beyond immersive gaming and virtual training, what will the average person use virtual reality for?
When PCs first appeared, most people asked a similar question on what good were PCs. That was until people started seeing how PCs could be used for word processing, spreadsheets, database management, playing games, printing greeting cards, surfing the Internet, and sending e-mail. Today, few people question the need for a PC.
Likewise when smartphones first arrived, not everyone embraced them. That was until people discovered the advantages of getting real-time driving directions, surfing the Internet, sending text messages, and checking appointments. Today, most people agree that smartphones are a crucial part of their everyday lives.
The main advantage of PCs and smartphones wasn’t just their technical capabilities but their ease of use. PCs initially sat on a desk and never moved, but laptops quickly became popular because you could take them to school, a coffee house, or an airplane and use the computer. Smartphones are even easier because you can pull them out of your pocket and use them, then put it away.
PCs would never have become as popular if they took up entire rooms like supercomputers do. Smartphones would never have come popular if you had to lug around a device the size and weight of a brick like early mobile phones looked and felt like.
So while virtual reality technology continues to get better all the time, the huge drawback is the need to strap a virtual reality headset to your face and connect the headset to a PC to power it. That immediately limits the use of the technology to a room, much like early computers limited their use to a fixed location. Virtual reality will find a niche market, but until products like Google Glass eliminate the inconvenience of strapping an entire virtual reality headset to your face and you no longer need to physically connect the headset to a PC, virtual reality will remain grounded in a fixed location.
The future for virtual reality lies with a device as convenient to use as Google Glass that doesn’t need a clumsy and heavy PC to power it. If you can slip a virtual reality headset on and off as conveniently as you can pull out a smartphone, that’s when virtual reality can take off. Google Glass is ahead of its time but simply isn’t powerful or fashionable enough to use consistently.
The bridge to virtual reality is augmented reality, and that’s the reason why Apple hasn’t revealed their virtual reality plans yet. That’s because the days of virtual reality becoming popular is too far off. In the meantime, augmented reality is far more likely.
The difference between the two is simply convenience. To use virtual reality, you need to strap a headset to your face (making you look weird to everyone around you) and you need a PC to power the headset. That limits you to an electrical outlet although companies such as Hewlett-Packard and MSI have developed backpack PCs that you can wear. However, that means strapping a headset to your face and carrying around a laptop on your back just to use virtual reality. That combination insures that few people will use virtual reality frequently for everyday use regardless of the technological advantages it might offer.
Augmented reality is different. It uses the camera in your existing smartphone or tablet so you can point and aim it to see something that isn’t really there. You could aim your smartphone at a street intersection and immediately see street names (retrieved through your smartphone’s GPS) along with a cartoon arrow showing you which direction to walk to reach a certain destination. Apple’s acquisition, a German company called Metaio, was working on exactly that type of augmented reality technology before Apple bought them up.
Just hold a smartphone or tablet at an object such as a car, and augmented reality can show you the internal machinery that makes up that car or show you different colors of that car. Augmented reality may not be as technologically exciting as virtual reality, but it’s far more practical. Remember, Alexander Bain invented the fax machine in 1843 so back then, fax machines were technical marvels. However, fax machines never become popular until over a century later when telephone lines became more reliable and less expensive to make long distance calls. Technology only gets accepted when it’s easy to use it regardless of how advanced it might be.
Virtual reality is far more advanced from a technical point of view than augmented reality, but which is easier to use? Most people already own a smartphone or tablet, so adding augmented reality to their lives is simple compared to forcing everyone to buy a virtual reality headset and walk around with it strapped to their face every time they want to use it.
In addition to Metaio, Apple also acquitted a second company called Flyby Media. The goal of Flyby Media was to create links to real-world objects. For example, you could assign a statue in a museum a text message so whenever someone got near that statue, they would receive a text message from that statue.
Combine Flyby Media’s technology with Metaio’s technology and you can see how to link augmented reality with real world objects. Suppose you use Flyby Media’s technology to link an augmented reality alert to a car in a showroom? You walk by that car and get a notice asking if you’d like to view that car through augmented reality. Aiming your smartphone at the car, you now get an augmented reality view of that car showing its internal parts and its different color schemes.
In a museum, Flyby Media’s technology could notify you of a statue that has augmented reality attached to it. Aim your smartphone at this statue and you can see text explaining the history behind that statue and the original appearance of that statue.
Augmented reality alone is kind of pointless because it won’t work on every object in the real world, so Flyby Media’s technology can notify you when you can use augmented reality. Although augmented reality isn’t as immersive as virtual reality, guess which technology is easier for people to use? People don’t adopt the most advanced technology; they adopt the most convenient technology that solves real problems.
Take Flyby Media’s technology to link signals to objects in the real world even further and you can see how public places like stadiums or museums could use iBeacon to broadcast information continuously for anyone with a smartphone to pick up. That would allow blind people to comfortably walk around in public using an iPhone to constantly alert them to the location of rest rooms, walls, stairs, and concession stands. Flyby Media’s technology could also be used by self-driving cars to recognize pedestrian walkways and intersections along with curbs and speed bumps.
The possibilities of using existing technology (smartphones) to introduce new technology (augmented reality) is far more likely to occur than introducing brand new technology (virtual reality headsets) into the world. If people could use their smartphones to add augmented reality features that offer clear advantages to their everyday lives, they’ll adopt that technology quickly. If people need to buy new technology to add features to their lives that don’t offer clear advantages to their everyday lives (virtual reality), they won’t adopt that technology quickly if at all.
By studying Apple’s acquisitions, you can piece together how it fits into their long-term plans. Virtual reality is a long-term goal. Augmented reality is a short-term, more immediately achievable goal that will eventually lead to virtual reality. Watch for Metaio and Flyby Media’s technology to show up in Apple products this year or the next.
Augmented reality may not be here yet, but it’s going to be more common than virtual reality ever will. It all boils down to convenience and practicality. Just ask Alexander Bain how well his fax machine invention fared back in 1843 despite being 100 years ahead of its time.