By Innovation Only, We'll See

The “By Innovation Only” tag line from the recent Apple event invite, seems like a bold statement. I know people love to “read the tea leaves” whenever an invite comes out and you should never read too much into the invites, but this year I can’t resist. Most pundits speculate the event will announce the next iteration of the iPhone, new materials for the Apple Watch Series 4 and some services stuff. One could argue that adding a third camera lens and leveraging software to make “blow away” pictures and videos possible is innovative, but not innovative enough to make the tag line of your event call it out. So is Apple just being overdramatic or are we going to see something else at this event?

Exactly five years ago Tim Cook took the stage for an emotional Apple Watch “One More Thing” announcement. I am starting to wonder if it is time for the next “One More Thing” announcement involving the as yet unnamed Apple AR spectacles project. Yes, it sounds like wish-casting, but I can point to several new technologies out of Apple over the last few years which will probably be the foundation for how the new product will work.

  • AR Kit - First announced at WWDC 2017, this framework gave Apple and developers a way to learn about AR. However, nobody wants to hold up an iPhone or iPad to use it.
  • AirPods - The W1 chip made it possible to sync audio across two separate devices. It is definitely something you might use as the foundation for syncing video across two small displays.
  • SideCar - Extend your Mac desktop onto an iPad. I assume this was all made possible by the windowing changes in macOS Mojave. I know some third party products existed for this, but the market for this feature seems pretty limited.

The features above on their own seem cool, but when you put them together you can start to see a stack of software and hardware technologies that could be used for a new AR eyewear project.

The next part is definitely a leap, but I think we might see them this fall with a release sometime next year. The rumors have been pointing to a 2020 release for quite some time and it makes sense to announce them in 2019. The first generation will be a first step and will most likely require a strong dependency on existing devices, like an iPhone or Mac. Even five years later the Apple Watch still relies on the iPhone for most things, although it has been slowly moving towards a standalone thing.

So what is the “story” Apple tells for the first generation AR glasses? The more likely story is how the glasses can complement your iPhone and let you see some basic things like the time, notifications and widgets. There will probably be a couple apps upgraded to support AR like maps, measure, maps? and probably at least one new app. Again my assumption is they will be pretty limited, much like the first Apple Watch, but will have a couple really cool features to get people excited. Several years ago there was a patent filing by Apple for a ring like device and I thought it was silly at the time, but now I think it would be a really great way of interacting with a headset device. If you have a ring on imagine sliding your finger across it to scroll and tapping on it to select.

The other story I have been rolling around in my brain is using the AR glasses as an external display for a Mac or iPad. What if all this SideCar business was really for displaying to AR glasses? What if this is the new display for the Mac Pro? I know it is a bit out there, but every time I sit at a desk and plug in to a monitor, I think boy it would be nice if I wasn’t limited to just this one flat piece of glass. The beauty of this idea is that you can still see your mouse and keyboard and everything else around you, so you don’t end up isolated in the world of VR. I think it is pretty compelling to be able to bring a large external display wherever you go using AR glasses.

I personally prefer the external display story, because it seems more practical and also an easier way to convince people to buy and use them. I love the AirPods, but when they first came out there I was definitely self conscious about wearing them in public. It is also somewhat problematic to always be wearing glasses with a camera on them, see Glassholes. I think in this case it is more important to start with a smaller niche audience and as the technology shrinks and improves move it out to a broader audience. Hopefully they learned the lesson from the Apple Watch, which was initially all about the apps, but ended up being focused on fitness and notifications.

Now we wait for Tim Cook to take the stage at the Steve Jobs Theater and utter those three important words, “One More Thing”.