Very rarely does an early technology garner such an air of inevitability like AR has in the past few years.
2018 was supposed to be a year where the foundational tech for augmented reality was built out a bit and the industry took a couple big leaps. Things started off well-enough, but momentum really doesn’t seem be on the side of some of the industry’s heaviest hitters heading into 2019, suggesting that life for earlier-stage startups may not be much easier.
There are plenty of reasons to be long-term bullish on AR, but the time horizons some have espoused seems to be bogus and pitch decks organized around a near-term spike in phone-based or glasses-based users are going to have a tougher time being taken seriously in 2019.
The ghost with the most
For all of the AR advances made this year, the company most emblematic of AR’s numerous challenges was clearly Magic Leap .
The company spent the past few years trashing industry standards and lauding their own approaches with braggadocio, but ended up releasing a product that largely iterated on its competitors. With the release of their “developer kit” this year, a product that clearly seems to have stopped being a first-gen product only when the reality of the climate availed itself, the startup seems to be finding that optics and infra progress is going to come more slowly than foretold.
I’ve talked to more than a few people who think Magic Leap hindered progress in the AR industry by siphoning investor attention and discouraging other hardware startups from joining the fray in the face of a billions-backed unknown. But in 2019, there are fewer available plays for the funding juggernaut. They spent years trying to distinguish themselves from the corporate mission of Microsoft and their HoloLens headset; now it seems they’ve begun to see that the only hope of justifying their sitting valuation in the next few years is enlisting support from the big customers that MSFT is chasing, as opposed to single-handedly birthing a consumer market. Magic Leap recently lost a bid to Microsoft for a $480 million military contract to outfit troops with AR headsets, and as Microsoft prepares to release a second-generation HoloLens with the enterprise in full concentration, it seems like Magic Leap is going to reshuffle its deck.
Dead-on-arrival content plays
Magic Leap’s struggles are well-documented, but what plagues the overall AR industry seems less discussed.
The consumer appetite for phone-based AR content is obviously lacking. Even Apple’s reality distortion field isn’t enough to convince people that its ARKit releases have led to anything other than some weird experimentation for iOS users. Few Android OEMs are boasting about compatibility with Google’s ARCore platform anymore, suggesting that approachable hardware standards for device makers wasn’t all that was missing from the failed Tango brand.
The most apparent mobile AR opportunities are probably in user-generated content, but there seems to be a disconnect between platforms and users in terms of how complex these AR experiences can and should become. At this point, selfie masks still seem to be at the edge of users’ comfort levels, leaving a lot of solved tech problems stuck in limbo waiting for a problem that makes them worthwhile.
Niantic is probably one of the most revenue-heavy startups dabbling in phone AR, even if it is a bit of a false idol for the industry. Nobody seems to think of Niantic as a capital-A augmented reality startup, but it’s clear that the team behind Pokémon GO sees the technology as a not-fully-tapped reservoir of potential for future gaming experiences that feel more social and more immersive than any mobile RPG that’s sucking up the majority of your playtime today. The company’s new Harry Potter title still doesn’t have a release date, we haven’t seen any gameplay, but we do know that AR plays a part in the title in some capacity. We’ll see if they figure out things the rest of the industry hasn’t.
Platform tech opportunities
Part of this broader content pain is the fact that some known platform fundamentals are still getting tackled. In 2018, the startups in AR that were raising the most buzz were so-called “AR cloud” startups, teams that were largely focused on solving more fundamental back-end problems around localization and mapping. It turns out “simple” problems like getting a bunch of users in a single session or keeping track of objects you’ve moved around between sessions are actually incredibly complex.
A big issue is that AR fundamentally relies on a level of spatial understanding that goes far beyond grasping geometry. For all the ground that has been traversed by computer vision researchers this year, issues like segmenting environments by objects and accurately identifying them are still in the earliest stages. When you think of AR tech as a subset of vision problems, you realize that products today are being approached in a kind of bizarre manner.
Google has been making worthwhile movements in proliferating their Lens computer vision engine across new apps and devices. In a very roundabout way, the company seems to have come to the worthwhile perspective that mapping an environment spatially doesn’t really help that much if you can’t parse the contextual nuances of what the camera is actually looking at, as well.
A lot of the AR startups in this space have raised some cash on the backs of the smartphone AR trend and the hundreds of millions of potential users, but it still seems pretty dubious whether this market has legs. Fortunately, most of these solutions have wide applicability across future industries like robotics and autonomous vehicles, helping computers interface with the real world through visual and geographic cues, but their utility might not be as ripe as they’d hope.
This is an area where Magic Leap could be poised to find some relatively near-term success. The startup’s top brass spent a hefty amount of time at their developer conference talking about the “Magicverse,” basically their vision for bringing localized AR layers onto geographic spaces where users with Magic Leap glasses could observe the content. Without having taken a peek at the tech they’re working with, their biggest advantage seems to rely on their partnership with AT&T, which is poised to start working more seriously with 5G in 2019.
The back end still remains a much more exciting market than hardware in 2019, but there may still be some interesting movement with devices this year. I don’t trust most of the predictive data that exists surrounding headset sales, so I’m not even going to reference it; suffice to say that AR headset sales aren’t going to explode anytime soon.
More conservative AR hardware
One trend that I am curious to see shake out is the more simplistic version of AR where the glasses basically just offer users a heads-up display for notifications and lightweight apps.
Companies like North and Vuzix have been talking a lot about their work here. Apple’s rumored AR glasses have been talked about for ages at this point, with 2020/2021 seeming to be the rumor mill sweet spot for a release time frame. If that’s the case, I’d bet it falls more into this design ethos than a HoloLens type device. The hardware just isn’t small enough yet, but it is getting close, and there could be some interesting early ground that the industry could gain by moving in more heavily on traditional wearable use cases — though high component costs will be an early limiter as well.
This is probably a hardware space Snap has their eyes on; Spectacles jogged a lot of the current thinking on glasses-type wearables, but at this point, the company needs something that has wide appeal and can feed users back into its own app. The company isn’t in a position to hock something with razor-thin or non-existent margins, and it doesn’t gain that much from a product that sells a few thousand units in terms of building its platform.
For the Facebooks and Apples of the world, immediate market conditions and user interest obviously hold a different weight. U.S. investment firms with good track records spent a lot of time this year rejiggering their expectations for their first waves of investments. For the more ambitious privately held AR startups of the world, there’s probably going to be an issue with raising capital this year, as a lot of the top hardware companies have been seeking more free-flowing late-stage cash from Chinese firms, which have been growing harder to pin down as the trade climate worsens. This is going to be a problem for hardware companies especially.
For the most part, the BS is going to continue to get easier to parse this year.
Platform plays are going to have to dial in their target audience a bit more than “everyone with an AR-enabled phone”; more realistic expectations are something the industry should benefit from. ARKit and ARCore are going to level-up and game engine-makers are going to get better solutions for AR content creators. Back-end vision challenges are going to get solved and enable things like more seamless multi-player, but there are plenty of reasons why these tech problem solutions won’t lead to big changes in user behavior. Users failing to take off in the second year of some of these big platforms probably won’t dissuade Apple, but it definitely will dissuade some investors from continuing to bet big on the near-term future of mobile AR.
Meet Matter: The IoT badge aiming to simplify the smart home
Get ready to look out for a new name and logo as you shop for the smart home, with the Zigbee Alliance rebranding and launching a new name, Matter, for Project CHIP. The revamp sees the old alliance name retired in favor of the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), intended to reflect a broader array of ways for things like connected bulbs, smart locks, cameras, and more to talk among themselves.
The Zigbee Alliance has been around for a while now, pushing the low-power, mesh-supporting network technology. While it may not be a consumer-recognized brand, Zigbee is actually found in a fair amount of smart home devices. Hue bulbs, for example, rely on it for their intercommunication, much like numerous remotes, locks, and other devices.
You can even find Zigbee on Mars at the moment, with the Ingenuity helicopter using the wireless tech for its link to NASA’s Perseverance rover.
While Zigbee may be well-traveled, as time has gone on it has become clear that no single communication standard will dominate the market. Instead, multiple different wired and wireless standards exist, and multiple different companies want to use their own proprietary connection types.
The CSA will try to bring them together as much as possible, it said today, and at least from the list of names onboard that does seem a more achievable goal. Amazon, Apple, Google, IKEAGoodbye Project CHIP, hello Matter
Key to the transition is the arrival of Project Connected Home over IP – aka Project CHIP – which is also getting a rebrand today. Now known as Matter, the brand by which it will launch in stores by the end of the year, it’s intended to be a badge by which smart home and IoT device interoperability can be checked. That, the CSA hopes, will cut down on “will gadget X work with ecosystem Y?” confusion in stores.
Initially developed by Amazon, Apple, Comcast, Google, SmartThings, and the Connectivity Standards Alliance, and subsequently joined by IKEA, Legrand, NXP Semiconductors, Resideo, Schneider Electric, Signify, Silicon Labs, Somfy and Wulian, Matter has some decent buy-in from device-makers at least. The platform promises IP-based connectivity with built-in security, initially via ethernet, WiFi, and Thread, with Bluetooth Low Energy used for easier initial setup.
The upshot should be devices that can be controlled within multiple ecosystems simultaneously, as well as interoperability between devices from different brands. “The Matter mark will serve as a seal of approval,” the CSA says, “taking the guesswork out of the purchasing process and allowing businesses and consumers alike to choose from a wider array of brands to create secure and connected homes and buildings.”
For example, a Matter-compliant device could work with Amazon Alexa, a SmartThings hub, and with Google Assistant devices. Existing devices will be in many cases brought along for the ride, too, such as Signify’s Hue bulbs. Final certification is expected in late 2021, across everything from lighting and electrical, HVAC, access control, security, smart shades, TVs, and more.
New iPhone 13 leak tips a mighty change in size
The latest iPhone info leak suggests there’ll be a significant change in how the devices look and feel in your hand – when you’re looking from the back, or the side. If you’re the sort of person who never looks at the back of your phone and always uses a protective case the differences may not seem all that extreme. The biggest change comes in the Pro model, where the camera array becomes massive.
The iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Pro, and iPhone 13 Pro Max will likely be revealed at an event this Autumn. Information shared with MacRumors suggests there’s a large enough change in size for both the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro that users will not be able to use an old model case. Both the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro are expected to get a thickness increase of 0.17mm.
The iPhone 12 is 7.4mm thick – the iPhone 12 Pro is also 7.4mm. That’s the thickness of the bulk of the device – not including the camera bump. Both models are expected to come in at 7.57mm without their camera bumps. The bump on the iPhone 12 is 1.5mm, while the iPhone 13’s bump is expected to grow to 2.51mm.
The iPhone 12 Pro has a camera bump relatively similar to the iPhone 12. The iPhone 12 Pro’s camera bump is 1.7mm, while the iPhone 13 Pro’s camera bump is expected to grow to a whopping 3.65mm.
It would seem that the new iPhone 13 Pro will feature a camera array that’s significantly different from that of the iPhone 13. The iPhone 13 Pro will likely have the same camera feature set as the iPhone 13 Pro Max. This suggests that there will be features that are important enough to the whole series that they will not be restricted to one model alone.
It’s likely there’ll be an event in October of 2021 at which Apple will reveal the new iPhone 13 device lineup. It’s difficult to predict when the devices will be released due to changing schedules and supply lines courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic and manufacturing fallout therein. If Apple holds an event in mid-October for the iPhone 13 device family, we’ll likely see an iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Pro, and iPhone 13 Pro Max release date by the end of October 2021.
Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition puts amp and streaming apps in one lavish box
If the idea of your own little bubble of perfect audio sounds appealing, Naim Audio’s new Uniti Atom Headphone Edition may be the trick to bringing out your inner-audiophile. A headphone-optimized version of the British music equipment specialist’s Unity Atom system, it combines a streaming box for platforms like TIDAL and Spotify with a high-quality headphone amp and more.
Rather than playing music back through a set of speakers, then, Naim’s newest box is focused on a single listener. It comes equipped with a new transformer design which, Naim says, has been reworked to deliver the best power for a headphone amp. There’s a choice of both balanced 4-pin XLR and Pentaconn outputs, plus a standard 6.3mm output.
The amp itself is a class-A that can switch into class-AB. Normally, at regular volumes, it sticks with class-A, but as you crank the power up – and the impedance of your headphones drops – then it can add in class-AB power for the top dB. There’s 1.5W per channel into 16 Ω, regardless of which output you’re using, and the Uniti Atom Headphone Edition connects to all outputs simultaneously.
There’s also support for using the box with a pre-amp, for those times you do want full speaker support. However, you can choose which to use depending on which headphones you feel like listening to. If you’re using the front 6.3mm and Pentaconn outputs, for example, the pre-amp outputs automatically mute and a headphone button illuminates. Or, you can press it manually if you want to use the XLR connection on the back.
On the streaming side, meanwhile, there’s the same tech that Naim already used on its Mu-so 2nd Gen, Uniti, and ND 555 players. There’s native support for TIDAL, Spotify Connect, and Qobuz, along with Chromecast and AirPlay 2 streaming to access other services, and Roon Ready status. TIDAL Connect, meanwhile, will be added in a few months time, Naim says.
There’s support for up to 24-bit/384kHz WAV, FLAC, and AIFF audio, plus ALAC. For MP3 and AAC, there’s up to 48kHz/320kbit (16-bit) support, plus up to 48kHz (16-bit) OGG and WMA. There’s DSD 64 and 128Fs, and finally SBC and AAC support over Bluetooth.
For connectivity, there’s an ethernet port, and WiFi 802.11ac, plus a USB port that can play music from external drives. Up to five Naim Streaming products can be connected and have their playback synchronized, all controlled via the Naim app. If you’re just operating the Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, there’s a front panel with buttons and a traditional rotary volume knob, or you can use the included Zigbee remote.
The Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition is available now, priced at $3,290.
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