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Augmented Actuality was lacking from Apple’s iPhone launch

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Apple CEO Tim Cook attends the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, on July 8, 2021.

Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images

At Apple’s annual launch event this week, new iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches, all of which were refinements of previous models, were showcased.

What Apple didn’t bring out, however, was a new type of product – Apple’s “next big thing” that customers are hoping will be extremely cool and investors are hoping to drive Apple’s growth for another decade or more like the iPhone did before.

Over the past several years, Apple and its CEO Tim Cook have emphasized “Augmented Reality,” or AR, which is a collection of technologies that use advanced cameras and modern chips to understand where objects are in relation to the user and place computer graphics or information on a screen that shows the real world.

After all, believers like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg say augmented reality technology is being bundled into a headset or glasses, which could mean a fundamental shift for the tech industry, like the way the touchscreen on the original iPhone created billion dollar companies.

But augmented reality technology didn’t show up at Tuesday’s event, save for a brief mention of an AR app that runs on iPads.

Justine Ezarik, named iJustine on her popular YouTube page, addressed the lack of AR at launch in a video interview with Cook posted after the event.

In his response, Cook reiterated some of the things he had said about AR in the past, but continued to be very optimistic about the technology, calling himself “number one AR fan”.

“I think AR is one of those very few deep technologies that one day we’ll look back and say, How did we live our lives without it?” said Koch.

Cook said AR technology’s main uses include education, collaboration, and furniture shopping while making sure it fits into the user’s home.

“And that’s in the early innings of AR,” said Cook. “It only gets better.”

Competitors who publish glasses

AR supporters say that wearing computer glasses will be a normal, everyday experience like using a smartphone today.

Apple has never confirmed that it builds AR headsets, despite buying several startups working on key building blocks like transparent screens in lenses and hiring hundreds of people to work on the project in its Technology Development Group.

Some of Apple’s closest competitors have already launched headsets.

Facebook released a pair of Ray-Ban camera sunglasses this week, which the company claims are a precursor to more advanced products. Microsoft is developing a high-end headset called the Hololens and has a contract with the US military worth potentially billions of dollars. Google sparked Silicon Valley’s obsession for computer glasses with the release of Google Glass in 2013.

The lack of AR announcements at Apple’s event isn’t an indication that Apple has abandoned the technology. Apple’s launch events focus on hardware and products customers can buy now – and do not give any indication of releases in the years to come.

None of Apple’s new devices received AR hardware, unlike in recent years when some models added lidar sensors that can measure how far away an object is. The cameras on the new iPhone Pro have an improved night mode that could be a useful feature for headsets in low light.

So far, Apple has generally treated AR as a software feature in public. Tools called ARKit and RealityKit have been designed for app developers to build their own iPhone AR apps without doing hard physics like triangulating the user’s location or recognizing hands and faces.

These tools popped up before the Apple event. Users with AR-enabled iPhones could download a file from Apple’s website that created a portal to a California landscape that was the theme of Apple’s launch.

Zoom In Icon Arrows pointing outwards

Apple’s new city navigation function in Apple Maps.

Apple

The iPhone software coming out on Monday, iOS 15, includes a mode where Apple Maps superimposes real-world directions – large arrows that tell the user where to go on the iPhone’s screen – in one Preview of an important function for a headset.

One challenge with these technologies is what they are called. Some people in the industry prefer the term “mixed reality,” which is less technical-sounding. The CEOs of Microsoft and Facebook, who are perhaps the most enthusiastic big corporations about augmented reality, have started speaking of a “metaverse” or digital world overlaid on top of the real world.

Cook and Apple are sticking to “augmented reality” for the time being.

“There are clearly other words out there. I’m going to stay away from the buzzwords and just call it augmented reality for now,” Cook said in an interview with Time published this week.

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