Apple AR Glasses: A Next Big Thing Candidate

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Last week, I proposed that the Apple Car might be the company’s Next Big Thing. Perhaps the NBT will come from another direction: Augmented Reality glasses. Today, we look at the challenges of this new class of devices.

When saturation within a market segment is reached, when there are no new customers to recruit, competitors have no choice but to engage in a margin-depleting price war. At least, that’s the accepted business theory. It doesn’t seem to apply to high-end brands that maintain their high margins despite market commoditization, a group that includes Louis Vuitton, Mercedes Benz, Patek Phillipe…and Apple — whose doom used to be predicted on the basis of that shirt-sighted dogma.

So when I proposed, last week, that the Apple Car would settle the Next Big Thing question, I was begging the question: Does Apple need a Next Big Thing? If the superficial commoditization dogma doesn’t apply to Apple, can the company thrive by simply maintaining its iPhone margins?

The answer: Apple will always need a Next Big Thing — it’s in the company’s DNA. Apple needs a product that will start an iPhone-caliber growth wave because that’s what the company does.

Today, we discuss a candidate: Apple Augmented Reality (AR) Glasses. AR means the device will let the outside world come in with a superimposition of information onto the user’s field of vision. Messages, navigation, entertainment during boring meetings or long rides, FaceTime conversations… the possibilities are endless and app developers would definitely jump at the opportunity.

Apple’s interest in Augmented Reality is no mystery. Clues abound in Developers Conference discussions and demonstrations. When asked about the company’s AR plans, the usually tight-lipped Tim Cook winks and says: “Stay tuned and you’ll see what we have to offer”. Unlike the unacknowledged Apple Car project, AR work is official — we simply don’t know what, when, how much, and how many.

For the what part, we can skip goggles. The genre has been explored since Jaron Lanier’s early 90s pioneering work (now pursued as a Microsoft Interdisciplinary Scientist), followed by Magic Leap, Meta Quest, Microsoft’s HoloLens, and others. Despite the billions of dollars poured into these projects — and even with Microsoft’s positioning Holo Lens as a serious business product — none of these efforts has triggered a wave.

A pair of bulky, face-covering goggles doesn’t fit Apple’s aesthetic. AR glasses, on the other hand, can be sleek and elegant — much more like an Apple consumer-oriented product.

For comfort and acceptance, AR Glasses would be worn instead of, not over the user’s existing vision correction, and the lenses must allow others see the user’s eyes (or an equivalent rendition). For social acceptance, AR Glasses need to indicate when the camera is on. Add AirPod functionality with real-world filtering to the wishful litany…

…but then the really hard parts start.

At least two cameras are needed, one to capture the outside world, and another to track your eye movements so the AR engine knows how to render the image that it lays on top of reality. Add to that the cycles needed to deal with messages and other communication traffic, and one thing is sure: Apple’s AR Glasses will require substantial computing power. And all of this power must be packed into a small form factor that includes a battery that won’t be too heavy — or too hot — to wear for hours at a time.

As a point of reference, an iPhone 13 weighs between 5 and 6.1 ounces (141 to 174 grams) and does substantially less than a pair of Apple Glasses would need to do. The bottom line, as I perceive it, is that Apple Glasses would require a substantial jump in the economy of hardware complexity, computing power, and battery consumption. Johny Srouji’s team, to whom we owe Apple Silicon breakthroughs, is familiar with the struggle to produce more computing power with fewer watts, but Glasses takes the battle to a new level.

Then there are the software obstacles. A veteran engineer reminds me of the latency challenge. Movies feel natural because they provide fresh images every 40 milliseconds (24 images/second). The AR engine would need to update your “screen” every 40 milliseconds so that when you turn your head, the scene doesn’t fracture. And it needs to juggle more tasks than our phones or desktops, all in apparent real time, no pauses, no “beachball”.

Could Apple Glasses use the current iOS? Originally, iOS worked well on both iPhones and iPads, but more recently had to be “forked” into a more specific iPadOS version. For Apple Glasses, an iOS variation most likely won’t do: There are too many hardware devices to serve, the time constraints are too stringent. And then we have to consider a new software development environment for developers to unleash their creativity into a new Augmented Reality world.

These hardware and software mountains lead me to wonder about the introduction of Apple Glasses. The company is known for its patience and for not shipping prototypes, but a whole, fully-functioning product probably won’t appear on Day One.

What’s the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) that Apple would be willing to introduce as Apple Glasses 1.0? Perhaps an expensive version targeted at software developers and bleeding edge consumers?

A look into the past gives us guidance. The first iPhone, shipped late June 2007, didn’t offer cut and paste, nor did it have an SDK (Software Development Kit), with Steve Jobs blithely promoting Web apps, fully knowing the missing SDK was a few months away. And let’s not forget the $499 price, high for the time, and 2G cellular connectivity Verizon and others were happy to lambaste.

Fifteen years later, Apple is an immensely more powerful company…but AR Glasses are orders of magnitude more complicated than the 2007 Jesus Phone. I’ll be really interested in seeing what Apple finally™ introduces and the story company execs tell about their infant Apple Glasses.

Back to our premise: Are Apple Glasses the much-fantasied about Next Big Thing, the new Apple Mother Lode?

I have my doubts.

Consider our smartphones. They are with us all the time, in our bags, our pockets. We use them all the time, sometimes hours on end for a huge variety of tasks that justify the “There Is An App For That” slogan. The question I can’t help ask is: Will we wear Apple Glasses often enough, long enough, to replace our iPhones? Of course, one wears one’s vision correction devices, glasses or lenses, more or less all the time, but would the same be true of Apple Glasses?

Furthermore, we’re willing to pay high prices, up to $1K or more for our phones. Will the same be true of AR Glasses that will clearly cost much more than our everyday companions?

To both questions I say: I don’t think so.

Apple Glasses have the potential to be a hardware/software/design Tour de Force, but based on likely frequency and length of use, to say nothing of price, one doubts that they will become The Next iPhone.


PS: There is a second potential outcome to last week’s positive thoughts about the Apple Car business model. Philosophers and legal sages say one should always be ready to articulate both sides of an issue. Should I therefore take the opposite side and discuss why the Apple Car is such a terrible idea? Perhaps in a few weeks.

Apple AR Glasses: A Next Big Thing Candidate was originally published in Monday Note on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Apple AR Glasses: A Next Big Thing Candidate

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