"And to show it off, I'd like to welcome onto the stage John Hanke, CEO of Niantic." "Thanks, Craig. Hello, everyone! Now, remember what it used to look like when you were playing Pokémon Go and you caught a Tyranitar in AR mode? Well, with Apple's new augmented reality framework, ARKit, now it looks like THIS!"
No one outside a very small group of people at Apple know for certain what we'll see at the WWDC 2017 keynote taking place this coming Monday. Even then, plans can and do change up until the last possible moment. So why speculate now? Because it's the best possible time. Come Monday afternoon, the myriad lines of dream and expectation will have been canceled out into a few hard facts. Everything will be known. Until then, though, I get to wonder out loud about anything and everything — including augmented reality (AR).
Many of the other tech giants already have AR technology in the field. Google had Glass and Android has a variety of headgear and built-in apps. Microsoft has HoloLens. HTC has Vive. Snapchat has Snapticles — er, Spectacles. Facebook has Oculus and is rolling out more. And the list goes on. Apple, as usual, has been quiet about future plans and projects.
But not completely quiet.
AR is big
Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, has been more willing to discuss AR than any other special project currently underway at Apple.
Talking to The Independant on February 10, 2017:
I'm excited about Augmented Reality because unlike Virtual Reality which closes the world out, AR allows individuals to be present in the world but hopefully allows an improvement on what's happening presently. Most people don't want to lock themselves out from the world for a long period of time and today you can't do that because you get sick from it. With AR you can, not be engrossed in something, but have it be a part of your world, of your conversation. That has resonance.
I regard it as a big idea like the smartphone. The smartphone is for everyone, we don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it's for everyone. I think AR is that big, it's huge. I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives. And be entertaining. I view AR like I view the silicon here in my iPhone, it's not a product per se, it's a core technology. But there are things to discover before that technology is good enough for the mainstream. I do think there can be a lot of things that really help people out in daily life, real-life things, that's why I get so excited about it.
On October 13, 2016, while speaking to BuzzFeed:
"There's no substitute for human contact," Cook told BuzzFeed News. "And so you want the technology to encourage that." It's not the first time Cook has indicated that Apple might favor AR. "We are high on AR for the long run," Cook said during an earnings call this past summer. "I think AR can be huge."
"VR has some interesting applications, but I don't think it's a broad-based technology like AR," Cook explained. "Augmented reality will take some time to get right, but I do think that it's profound. We might … have a more productive conversation, if both of us have an AR experience standing here, right? And so I think that things like these are better when they're incorporated without becoming a barrier to our talking. … You want the technology to amplify it, not to be a barrier."
During Apple's Q2 2016 conference call on July 26, 2016:
In terms of AR and the Pokémon phenomenon, it's incredible what has happened there. I think it's a testament to what happens with innovative apps and the whole ecosystem and the power of a developer being able to press a button, so to speak, and offer their product around the world. This certain developer has elected not to go worldwide yet, because of the pressure on their servers, etc. because of the demand, but I'm sure that they will over time. It also does show, as you point out, that AR can be really great and we're— we have been and continue to invest a lot in this. We are high on AR for the long run. We think there's great things for customers and a great commercial opportunity. So we're investing, and the number one thing is to make sure our products work well with other developers kind of products like Pokémon. And that's the reason you see so many iPhones out in the wild right now chasing Pokémon.
You know, I know there's people that want to call it a new computer platform, and we'll see. I think there's a tendency to call everything new the next computer platform, however, that said, I think AR can be huge. So, we'll see whether it's the next platform. Regardless, it will be huge.
Bits before atoms
There have also been rumors of iPhone 8 being AR-capable and even of Apple making its own AR glasses. But those are products and if there's on thing we've seen with Apple, it's that products are made great not just through gorgeous atoms but through highly integrated bits.
So if Apple is working on AR, the company is no doubt also working on "ARKit", or whatever the name will be for the frameworks that drive it and the apps that will, eventually, bring it to life. The way SpriteKit addresses 2D objects and SceneKit, 3D.
That's the way WWDC works, after all. Sometimes, before we ever see hardware, we see frameworks. Look no further than size classes, released at WWDC 2015, just a few short months before iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
Apple doesn't have to show off AR hardware at WWDC. Not if they have some killer software ready to show.
How could Apple demonstrate AR frameworks without demonstrating AR gear, though? Through existing gear and AR apps.
Tim Cook has name-dropped Pokémon Go a couple of times over the last year. Sundar Pichai as recently as last month's Google I/O credited that game, rather than his own company's Glass, as starting them down the path of AR.
Not the Pokémon point
It doesn't have to be Pokémon Go specifically, of course. Maybe it's some similar game based on Harry Potter's Fantastic Beasts or another compatible franchise. It just has to be a great demo on stage.
John Hanke, or someone like him, just has to get up and talk about how ARKit (or whatever it's called) allows Pikachu (or some other character) to better and more easily track motion and integrate with real-world environments than anything that's come before.
If the company simultaneously announces the new Gym system or, even better, a brief window of player vs. player exclusivity on iOS, then the sizzle is so hot people won't even pay attention to the steak. And Apple gets AR bits going without having to reveal a single atom before its time.
That's a really bad example, of course, because Pokémon Go uses Unity and so likely couldn't adopt Apple-specific technologies (regardless of how much better it would make the experience); so much of its player-base is on Android, even a brief window of exclusivity likely wouldn't go over well.
But I picked on Pokémon Go because I'm still sore Ninatic took the stage at WWDC 2016, showed off a Snorlax, and yet didn't make one spawn for all the grizzled reporters and seasoned analysts who'd suddenly grasped for their phones, eyes lit up in anticipation. And, of course, Niantic was on stage at the iPhone 7 event in Sepetmber as well, showing off the Pokémon Go app for Apple Watch.
Again, it could be any game that demos great. That is, if AR is a game Apple wants to get into this summer.
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