For months, all the hype in technology circles has revolved around artificial intelligence (AI). But an upcoming announcement from Apple could reignite the excitement around virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR).
The closely related technologies, often collectively known as extended or mixed reality (XR/MR), were the hot topic a few years ago. This was largely due to Meta’s Oculus Quest devices, which it successfully marketed as a package of affordable hardware and an accessible software ecosystem.
This was instrumental in building the hype and excitement around the metaverse concept as we looked forward to a future where we would interact in more immersive and engaging ways across online, digital spaces, and digitally enhanced real-world environments.
Since then, AI has undoubtedly attracted attention thanks to the advent of ChatGPT and the explosion of interest in generative technologies. But even in the Quest days, Apple made no secret of the fact that it was working on its own headset technology. Now it looks like those plans are about to become a reality, with the first concrete announcements expected to arrive soon.
So, could this put VR and the Metaverse back on the agenda? And how will this generation of VR/AR be affected by the fact that AI now plays a much bigger role in our lives than it did even just a few years ago?
Apple’s history with AR/VR
While it hasn’t released any hardware to date, there are signs that Apple has a long-standing interest in the space. It developed QuickTime VR in 1995, one of the first standards for using 360-degree visuals to create immersive experiences. More recently, it has made a number of acquisitions over the past decade that cement its interest. These include AR startup MetaIO in 2015 and NextVR in 2020.
In 2017, it released ARKit, a platform for creating AR applications that can run on its iOS devices, such as Macintosh computers, iPhones, and iPads. In particular, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has often expressed his interest as the technology has evolved over several generations, from the earliest headsets to smartphone-based headsets and later initiatives such as Google Glass.
From this history, we can see that while it may not have seen the need to bring a product to market quickly, it has always considered that the field of mixed reality technology will play an important role in the future of technology.
The Apple headset
While we’ve known for a while that a headset is on the table, the company itself is tight-lipped. However, since this is Apple, there’s a huge community of fans who want to delve into everything the California-based tech giant is working on. This has led to a lot of speculation and rumors about what to expect.
Fans think it’s likely the headset will be known as the Reality Pro. It is also expected to carry a hefty price tag of around $3,000. This would put it in a very different category from the heavily consumer and entertainment oriented devices launched by Meta. Like the company’s first computers, as well as more recent Mac Pro and Macbook Pro devices, it’s likely aimed at professionals and creatives.
It is also believed that the launch will bring the debut of a new operating system called xrOS. This will be the software layer the company will use to build its future VR/AR products around, just as its desktop computers and mobile devices each have their own operating system platforms, MacOS and iOS.
It’s expected to have 8K OLED screens for super-sharp displays and, at the assumed price, will likely also feature Apple’s powerful M2 processor, as used in its Macbook Pro laptops. The hardware will likely track hand and eye movements, thanks to a host of cameras and sensors, allowing users to explore virtual environments in a natural, fluid way.
It’s also important to note that Apple’s new headset and accompanying xrOS operating system could pave the way for more consumer-oriented AR glasses. Apple is rumored to be working on lightweight glasses that could blur the line between AR and everyday life, making the technology more accessible and inviting for everyday consumers. Whether for navigation, shopping or even social interactions, such consumer-facing devices have the potential to revolutionize our experience with AR technology and embody Apple’s unique combination of function, design and consumer appeal. Similar to how the iPhone transformed mobile technology, “Apple Glasses” could have the potential to redefine the AR industry, pushing it toward widespread adoption and use.
Return to the Metaverse
It may seem that the topic of the metaverse has gotten a bit off the boil, with everyone paying much more attention to using generative AI than to plans for building the “next level” of the internet.
This is just a natural evolution of the “hype cycle” that drives technology discussion; however, there is always something new and shiny to catch our attention. It doesn’t mean that companies responsible for spending billions of dollars to make these ideas a reality are simply forgetting what they were doing 18 months ago.
The previous wave of excitement around VR and the immersive internet was driven by Meta, as well as, to a lesser extent, the pioneers of the decentralized internet concept called Web3.
It’s certainly possible that Apple’s upcoming announcement and launch could put it back in the spotlight. A device with the power that’s being proposed would allow for much more impressive visuals and a smoother experience. Considering previous attempts (including Meta’s) have sometimes been unkindly compared to the level of graphical fidelity of decades-old video games, this performance jump could be all it takes to finally launch XR into the mainstream.
A key factor in this could be the rumor that Apple will enable both VR and AR experiences with the same device. Meta’s Horizons has firmly planted itself as a VR experience thus far, while it’s often been suggested that AR will be just as important as VR for the “real” metaverse.
Given Apple’s strong user base and its history of catapulting specialty products into the mainstream by reinventing them as sleek lifestyle accessories, it’s possible that its arrival will generate another wave of excitement around the metaverse concept – making AR and VR play a bigger role in our lives.
MR and AI – a perfect match?
The last time we were excited about VR, no one outside of a group of researchers at OpenAI had heard of ChatGPT or the language models that power it. But to view them as separate, unrelated technologies would be a mistake. It is almost certain that Apple is considering the implications of the emergence of generative AI for its plans for a new generation of XR hardware and software.
For starters, generative AI will make it easier to design and build the 3D worlds we’ll explore with our headsets, as well as the immersive AR experiences that connect to the real world around us.
If we can simply describe the experiences and applications we want to create in natural language, we open the floodgates for companies looking to establish a presence and for designers who want to create immersive environments for us to explore.
There’s also the possibility of AR and VR worlds being populated with AI-powered inhabitants. These can be lifelike simulated humans (or other creatures we can imagine) with whom we can interact and talk as if they were real people standing in front of us.
It’s clear that a VR environment (or metaverse) is probably much more realistic and engaging than any other 3D environment we’ve experienced to date. AI can be used to generate realistic facial expressions and simulated voices, and to make 3D characters behave and move ever more lifelike. These AI constructs will also be able to speak in as many languages as needed, at the same time – simply translating them in real time according to the language preference of whoever interacts with them. The implications for entertainment, education, business and industry are literally limitless.
How will Apple influence the future of AR and VR?
Apple doesn’t tend to invent new product categories – it brings them to the masses in slick, glossy packaging with an appeal beyond the early adopters who are the first to buy new technology. We saw this with their early Macintosh computers, the later line of iMacs, and, more recently, iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches.
If the rumors are true, we can expect the first concrete details about the Reality Pro at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) 2023, which kicks off in a few days on June 5.
Apple’s big new hardware launches rarely disappoint – unlike its biggest competitors, it doesn’t rush to jump on every trend that emerges, often waiting until it’s sure it’s the right project for the right market has.
On the other hand, nothing can be taken for granted in today’s day and age, and it’s fair to say that the rise of AI has had huge ramifications that maybe even Apple hasn’t fully grasped yet.
Time will tell if this can finally put an end to the series of groundbreaking product launches. But given his track record, it would certainly be foolish to believe that anything is a foregone conclusion.
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Bernard Marr is an international best-selling author, in-demand keynote speaker, futurist, and strategic business and technology advisor to governments and corporations. He helps organizations improve business performance, use data more intelligently and understand the implications of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, blockchains and the Internet of Things. Why not connect with Bernard on Twitter (@bernardmarr), LinkedIn (https://uk.linkedin.com/in/bernardmarr) or instagram (bernard.marr)?
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