Apple’s next big leap

The tech gi­ant hopes to use the iPhone to bring aug­mented re­al­ity into the main­stream

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Michael Liedtke Mar­cio Jose Sanchez, The As­so­ci­ated Press

SAN FRAN­CISCO» Apple’s iPhone may be ready for its next big act — as a spring­board into “aug­mented re­al­ity,” a tech­nol­ogy that projects life-like im­ages into real-world set­tings viewed through a screen.

If you’ve heard about AR at all, it’s most likely be­cause you’ve en­coun­tered “Poke­mon Go,” in which play­ers wan­der around neigh­bor­hoods try­ing to cap­ture mon­sters only they can see on their phones. AR is also mak­ing its way into ed­u­ca­tion and some in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions, such as prod­uct as­sem­bly and ware­house in­ven­tory man­age­ment.

Now Apple is hop­ing to trans­form the tech­nol­ogy from a geeky sideshow into a mass-mar­ket phe­nom­e­non. It’s em­bed­ding AR-ready tech­nol­ogy into its iPhones later this year, po­ten­tially set­ting the stage for a rush of new apps that blur the line be­tween re­al­ity and dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion in new and imag­i­na­tive ways.

“This is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and mar­vel on the start of it,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told an­a­lysts dur­ing a Tues­day con­fer­ence call. Many an­a­lysts agree. “This is the most im­por­tant plat­form that Apple has cre­ated since the app store in 2008,” said Jan Daw­son of Jack­daw Re­search.

There’s just one catch: No one can yet point to a killer app for AR, at least be­yond the year-old (and fad­ing) fad of “Poke­mon Go.” In­stead, an­a­lysts ar­gue more gen­er­ally that AR cre­ates enor­mous po­ten­tial for new games, home-re­mod­el­ing apps that let you vi­su­al­ize new fur­nish­ings and decor in an ex­ist­ing room, ed­u­ca­tion, health care and more.

For the moment, though, we’re ba­si­cally stuck with demos cre­ated by de­vel­op­ers, in­clud­ing a “Star Wars”-like droid rolling past a dog that doesn’t re­al­ize it’s there; a dig­i­tal replica of Hous­ton on a ta­ble; and a vir­tual tour of Vin­cent Van Gogh’s bed­room.

At Apple, the in­tro­duc­tion of AR gets un­der­way in Septem­ber with the re­lease of iOS 11, the next ver­sion of the op­er­at­ing sys­tem that pow­ers hun­dreds of mil­lions of iPhones and iPads around the world

Tucked away in that re­lease is an AR tool­kit in­tended to help soft­ware de­vel­op­ers cre­ate new AR apps.

Those apps, how­ever, won’t work on just any Apple de­vice — only the iPhone 6S and later mod­els, in­clud­ing the hotly an­tic­i­pated next-gen­er­a­tion iPhone that Apple will re­lease this fall. The 2017 iPad and iPad Pro will run AR apps as well.

Apple isn’t the only com­pany bet­ting big on AR. Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg talked up the tech­nol­ogy at a com­pany pre­sen­ta­tion in April, call­ing it a “re­ally im­por­tant tech­nol­ogy that changes how we use our phones.” Apple ri­vals such as Google and Mi­crosoft are also start­ing to de­ploy AR sys­tems.

Apple has been look­ing for some­thing to lessen its de­pen­dence on the iPhone since the 2011 death of its co-founder CEO Steve Jobs, the driv­ing force be­hind the com­pany’s in­no­va­tion fac­tory.

Cook thought he had come up with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary prod­uct when Apple be­gan sell­ing its smart­watch in 2015, but the Apple Watch re­mains a niche prod­uct.

For now, the iPhone re­mains Apple’s dom­i­nant prod­uct, ac­count­ing for 55 per­cent of Apple’s $45.4 bil­lion in rev­enue dur­ing the three months ended in June.

Tim Merel, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of tech­nol­ogy con­sult­ing firm Digi-Cap­i­tal, be­lieves Apple’s en­try into AR will cat­alyze the field. His firm ex­pects AR to mush­room into an $83 bil­lion mar­ket by 2021, up from $1.2 bil­lion last year.

That es­ti­mate as­sumes that Apple and its ri­vals will ex­pand be­yond AR soft­ware to high-tech glasses and other de­vices, such as Mi­crosoft’s HoloLens head­set.

For now, though, noth­ing ap­pears bet­ter suited for in­ter­act­ing with AR than the smart­phone. Google al­ready makes AR soft­ware called Tango that de­buted on one Len­ovo smart­phone last year and will be part of an­other high-end de­vice from Asus this month.

Nearly 90 per­cent of Apple de­vices pow­ered by iOS typ­i­cally in­stall the new soft­ware ver­sion when it comes out. As­sum­ing that pat­tern holds true this fall, that will bring AR to about 300 mil­lion Apple de­vices that are al­ready in peo­ple’s hands.

If the new soft­ware wins over more AR fans as Apple hopes, an­a­lysts fig­ure that Apple will be­gin build­ing AR-spe­cific de­vices, too.

One ob­vi­ous pos­si­bil­ity might be some kind of AR glasses teth­ered to the iPhone, which would al­low peo­ple to ob­serve dig­i­tal re­al­ity without hav­ing to look “through” a phone. Once tech­nol­ogy al­lows, a stand­alone head­set could ren­der the iPhone un­nec­es­sary, at least for many ap­pli­ca­tions.

Such a de­vice could ul­ti­mately sup­plant the iPhone, al­though that isn’t likely to hap­pen for five to 10 years, even by the most op­ti­mistic es­ti­mates.

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