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.
NFL Sunday Ticket games may be coming to Apple’s streaming platform
As the NFL’s 8-year Sunday Ticket deal with DirecTV nears its end, the football league is looking to Apple as its ideal replacement, according to a new report. Multiple companies are said to be prospective destinations for the League’s Sunday games, including Amazon (which is already home to Thursday Night Football), as well as Disney for ESPN.
The claim comes from sources speaking with The Athletic, which claims that the NFL wants Apple to be the new company behind its Sunday Ticket. The package is set to expire after nearly a decade with DirecTV, the league’s long-term partner. An Apple package may be a bit different than what DirecTV has, as well.
The insiders claim that an NFL Sunday Ticket under Apple may include some notable changes, including the potential for football fans to purchase a standalone game or even purchase all of the out-of-market games for one particular team. A more tailored approach like that would arguably be better for sports fans who may only be interested in select games.
The report cites a source who alleged that “everything is on the table,” but the NFL hasn’t confirmed any of the details and the report claims that nothing has been finalized at this time. It is possible the Sunday Ticket package won’t ultimately go to Apple, which likewise has remained quiet about the rumor.
The NFL is reportedly looking to get another $2 billion per year on top of the existing contract price, which is said to be around $1.5 billion yearly on average for DirecTV. It doesn’t look like AT&T will pen a new deal with the League to keep the Sunday Ticket. Amazon has already scored Thursday Night Football and it remains possible it may get the Sunday Ticket, as well.
With iPhone 13 in hand, I miss Touch ID more than ever
I’ve been traveling this past week, and the iPhone 13 Pro Max has been my trusty sidekick. Whether it’s boarding passes, camera duties, messaging, or keeping me occupied with ebooks and music, I’ve found myself staring at the excellent 120Hz ProMotion display a whole lot. Problem is, when the sensors above that screen stare back, they’re not seeing what they want to.
Face unlock – Face ID in Apple-world – has been a side victim of the coronavirus pandemic. Consistently wearing masks (along with regularly washing your hands, and being vaccinated) is one of the CDC’s big recommendations for avoiding COVID-19, and it’s a legal requirement when you’re in airports and on trains.
Having half your face obscured isn’t especially helpful to a system which relies on scanning it in order to unlock your iPhone. And, with how much I’ve been using the iPhone 13 Pro Max this week – and enjoying it, too, particularly the excellent cameras – its a hurdle I’ve been running into hundreds of times a day, if not more.
Apple’s workaround, of course, is a singularly Apple-y way of dealing with half-masked faces: you need to have an iPhone and and Apple Watch. The feature, launched earlier this year as an iOS 14 update, allows you to bypass security on the iPhone just as long as your Apple Watch is on your wrist and unlocked.
Now, leaving aside the fact that clearly not everyone who has an iPhone also has Apple’s smartwatch, this workaround actually held up pretty well. I’ve been using it on an iPhone 12 Pro Max since it was released, and while there were times it simply didn’t actually unlock, or would unlock without my intending it, it did make using iOS while masked more streamlined. Unfortunately, it’s not working any more.
Since switching to iOS 15 and the iPhone 13 Pro Max, I’ve lost the ability to unlock with Apple Watch. Trying to turn the feature on in the iOS settings simply gets me a “can’t create a secure connection with the Apple Watch” message. A quick search online confirms I’m not alone.
It looks to be an iOS 15 issue, not an iPhone 13 one, but since Apple’s latest version comes preloaded and you can’t downgrade it, anybody in the same situation as I am will probably find that distinction little comfort. I’ve tried all the “fixes” and suggestions listed online – rebooting the phone and the watch; updating to the latest software version of each; even unpairing the Apple Watch and then repairing it from scratch – and nothing works.
I’ve been traveling this week, so wearing a mask a whole lot, and it’s been a reminder of just how many times you need to unlock your phone. Even just checking the latest notifications, if you have iOS’ privacy feature which only reveals their content on the lock screen when iOS is unlocked, requires a PIN now. The iPhone 13’s screen notch may be smaller this generation, but that doesn’t really matter when Face ID can’t see enough of you to do its thing.
Meanwhile, I’m looking enviously over at devices like the new iPad mini, and its Touch ID sensor built into the power button. I can understand why Apple shifted away from a fingerprint scanner in the iPhone, and – when unmasked – I’m a big fan of Face ID. I particularly enjoy how it makes logging into apps, and unlocking payments, simple. Honestly, it took a global pandemic to get frustrated by it.
Rumors of a return of Touch ID to the iPhone have given plenty of people – myself included – a glimmer of hope about striking that balance of security and convenience again. Unlock with Apple Watch was generally functional, but still could be clunky in the same way that anything wirelessly-dependent (I’m looking at you, AirDrop) can periodically leave you longing for a physical alternative. Just as even that took its time arriving in iOS, however, it always seemed a fact of reality that if Apple really was intending to return a fingerprint sensor to its phones, that wouldn’t be in time for 2021.
SEE TOO: The iPhone 13 Pro Max’s 120Hz ProMotion Display is the real deal
As it stands, for a variety of reasons – not least vaccine holdouts – it looks like we’ll be masked-up well into 2022 and probably beyond. An iPhone 14 with a built-in Touch ID sensor probably will be just as relevant as an iPhone 13 would’ve been with that today. Talk about disheartening.
Security is, of course, one thing you should never compromise on. Tempting as it is to change the settings on my iPhone so that it waits a little longer to unlock, or shows the content of my notifications for anyone who glances at them on the lock screen, I know that’s a foolhardy thing to do. Instead, I’ll wait (semi) patiently for the inevitable iOS update which hopefully fixes iPhone unlock with Apple Watch, and punch in my regular PIN until that arrives.
All the same, I can’t help but wonder whether, as we rush to embrace new technology, being equally quick to leave behind what came before it might be a missed opportunity. I’m not someone who particularly mourns the loss of the headphone jack, but these past few days have certainly left me more sympathetic to those who discovered the tech world changed and, in the process, decided something that was important to them could actually be left behind.
Peak Design Mobile modular magnetic accessory line launches in time for iPhone 13
Peak Design released their full mobile ecosystem of magnetic and protective accessories today, coordinated with the launch of Apple’s iPhone 13. This collection was part of a Kickstarter back in December of 2020 and rolled out for general availability for the first time today. The mobile line starts with the “Everyday Case”, available for iPhone 11, 12, 13, and Samsung Galaxy S21.
Peak Design has a brand for name for the magnetic system they use with their smartphone case and accessories: SlimLink. SlimLink is a ceramic zirconia insert surrounded by custom tuned magnets that are inserted into each Peak Design Everyday Case.
This SlimLink system does not prohibit Qi standard wireless charging – so users will not need to remove their case in order to use a wireless charging pad. The Everyday Case is thin enough that wireless charging will work, and thick enough that it’ll protect a smartphone from harm.
Included in the launch collection of accessories are the Everyday Case, the Everyday Loop Case, and a wide variety of connecting peripherals. There is also a Universal Adapter that can be attached to third-party phone cases.
In the Peak Design Mobile collection at launch, there is a Car Mount, Motorocycle Bar Mount, Motorcycle Stem Mount, Out Front Bike Mount, Universal Bar Mount, and a Wall Mount. You’ll also find a Creator Kit, Mobile Tripod, Mobile Wallet, and a Wireless Charging Stand, right out the gate.
Take a peek at our previous features with Peak Design and let us know if you’re planning on attaching this series of accessories to your brand new device. We’ll be back with reviews of the lot once we get up close and personal with the cases and the accessories of all sorts!
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