Will Apple ARKit disrupt the AR/VR market?

Yesterday I was just relaxing on facebook after lunch, watching funny cats GIFs…

…when suddenly I stumbled upon a Robert Scoble’s post

Reading this sentence I quite got shocked. If you don’t know who Robert Scoble is… well, he’s a smart AR/VR journalist and innovator… and if someone smart makes a bold announcement, well, I’m interested in what has drawn him to that conclusion. So I digged a bit and I found this facebook video where he explains his theory.

The video is quite long, but I advice you to watch it since Robert is very passionate when it talks about technology so listening to him and to his theory is really exciting. Then the last part when its son pops in the video is so cute.

But cuteness apart, what he’s saying is the important thing. And he’s explaining why he thinks that Apple is going to completely disrupt the AR/VR market this autumn. Let’s see why.

Mr.Scoble reminds us that this autumn the iPhone 8 will be released. The iPhone 8 will be an evolution of current device (more resolution, more GPU, more whatever) with the key additional feature of 3D sensors. According to rumors, iPhone 8 will feature 3D sensors both on the front and the rear camera. And this, together with various software updates, can be a game changer for AR/VR market future.

Let’s get back to some years ago. In 2013 Apple bought Primesense and left all us Kinect v1 fans surprised. Primesense was the Israeli company behind the Kinect v1, an astonishing product for those times. We’re talking about a company able to develop a depth sensor together with a middleware to anaylize its data so that to perform skeletal tracking and environment recostruction. Compared with the next Kinect v2, v1 model is terrible, but for the time it came out it was incredibly innovative. The whole Kinect world is now dying and Apple still did not made clear why it bought this technology.

Primesense 3d sensor
Primesense technology (image by iDownloadBlog)

Then it came the time of Metaio acquisition. When I was at the beginning of my experience at Immotionar, Gianni and me loved playing with augmented reality framework for smartphones. The best ones were Vuforia and Metaio, with Metaio being slightly better than the competitor. Both frameworks were great and both were free to be used for indie usage (there was an annoying marker and some limitations, but who cared). Then suddenly Metaio vanished, because Apple bought it. I was like

Again, Apple acquired the technology for an unknown reason and kept it for itself. We all AR developers switched immediately to Vuforia.

Metaio AR
Metaio Man, superimposed to a market with his own image. So many memories in seeing him (Image from vvvv.org)

Apple also acquired Faceshift, a company well known to be able to perform amazing facial mocap.

After all these years, seems that these acquisitions are starting to have sense.

Metaio has now become the famous Apple ARKit. Using only the phone camera, ARKit is able to put virtual objects onto the real world. This is incredible because current phone AR is mostly based on markers, that is images that you print and you put on your table to see virtual objects onto them (see the Metaio Man above for instance), while ARKit needs not. ARKit is phone AR made easy: easy for developers since it handles a lot of stuff for them, making them to concentrate only on the important parts of the app; easy for the users because they launch the AR app on the phone and the tracking just works: they don’t have to print stuff or take objects with them. It’s just awesome. It still has some glitches when comparing it to competitors like Google Tango, but the reason is that it relies only on a RGB camera

…and this is where Primesense comes in. Adding depth cameras to the ARKit tracking means making the tracking ultra-stable. The phone will be able to detect exactly its position in space. Even more, it would be able to detect the environment around it and with some AI could also recognize objects. And not only objects…

…because due to Primesense and Faceshift algos, the phone could also detect our hands and faces. Hands detection will allow for gestures interaction with the phone, while face detection and tracking with the front camera would mean AR features on the face of the user (Snapchat-like stuff).

As you can see, all these acquisitions seems the key for the development of a phone capable of doing incredible AR stuff. AR stuff using the phone, the device we already know, not something for techie like the HoloLens. And if we want a glass, well, we can put the iPhone inside Mira Prism for instance and have our hands free.

But Robert dreams about VR, too. Since iPhone 8 could detect its position in space and could maybe detect hands, if inserted into a cardboard-like headset could become an incredible mobile headset with 6DOF. The iHeadset would be like a standalone headset, with inside-out tracking and astonishing graphics (since iPhone GPUs are the best out there) and maybe hands as controllers as with Leap Motion. Consider it as a Snapdragon VR headset, but that works just putting the iPhone inside: hands tracking, 6DOF, great graphics.

So in his opinion the new iPhone would be the first AR/VR device. And the ARKit implementation, that will be enabled on all phones from the iPhone 6s onward, will make something like 200 millions devices to become AR ready (with new phones having the ultra-stable tracking and former phones having the quite-stable tracking).

This won’t surprise me that much if all these announcements would have been made by another company, like Samsung. Android devices are already VR devices (thanks to Cardboard) and AR devices (thanks to Vuforia). But Apple moves the world. If Apple says that AR is the new thing, everyone will start thinking that AR is the new thing. When the Apple Watch come out, some newspaper here titled that “Apple has invented the smartwatch”, while there were a bazillion of them before the Apple Watch launch (Pebble, Samsung Gear, etc…). Apple has a marketing power no one has. They could make awesome AR/VR demos in their shops and convince people that they have to be interested to this tech. And then there is the brand, the brand everyone wants. Robert Scoble predicts that this Christmas every kid will want an iPhone 8 to live AR/VR experiences.

Then Robert dreams also about an Apple AR glass that will be released in the future. Again, Apple is the only brand people would want to stick to their face, so they could have an awesome advantage over the competition. So first they make people aware of AR thanks to ARKit and then they show people a better way of performing AR thanks to a magical glass. Epic strategy.

But the most important thing of its speech is the developer part. Developers makes technologies successful. He said that Windows Phone died because developers were not interested in it… so there were no interesting apps and people with WP were really annoyed by their phones (I had a WP7 device and I have switched to Samsung as soon as I could since I could not find the apps I needed). And developers are super-interested to ARKit. I’m seeing a bazillion demos out there by devs… and ARKit has been announced only 1 month and a half ago. These developers will create a lot of apps and will make the ARKit ecosystem super-rich, so that when the iOS update will enable all iPhone and iPad owners to use AR, they will find a lot of interesting AR applications (like the one developed by Luden.io). And developers are interested by it especially because of the market. Let’s review for a moment the market of VR:

SuperData research VR market
Sales of virtual reality headsets according to SuperData (Image by Wall Street Journal)

So, summing the sales of VR headsets we obtain 3 million devices. If we also add GearVR, we have 11 million devices out there. A decent market.

But ARKit will have a potential market of 250 million devices. It’s 20x bigger! Why a developer should target a niche when it can target all iPhone owners? Which is the sense of struggling for making a demo for Vive when it can be done for ARKit and getting much more money? This is why a lot of devs are switching to ARKit: it’s a possible way to make money. It’s a gold rush. VR market could be destroyed because developers are no more interested in developing for it. And if Apple really manages in doing a 6DOF VR viewer, we’ll have 70 million VR compatible devices after the first month of sales of the iPhone8, a market 10x the one of GearVR.

If this happens, they will win. Competition will need time to reach Apple and we’ll have the same situation that we had when the first iPhone came out: Apple invents and the others run after, gaining market later, when they’ll be able to offer lower prices for similar things. But this will mean a complete reset of the market: people will get more awareness of AR and VR, people will concentrate on Apple platform and forget other products.

This seems like a genius plan and Scoble adds that this is something that Jobs and Cook have decided together 7 years ago and that’s why it is so ingenious.

Steve Jobs AR
Steve Jobs… you may love him, may hate him… but it changed a lot the UX design of the technology we use today (Image by Come Don Chisciotte)

This is Robert Scoble’s theory, reinterpreted by me. And I think that it is interesting and we all should take it in count, since as VR startuppers we should follow how the market moves. And be careful in following market disruptions and not getting hit by them like the Titanic with the iceberg.

Now it’s time for my personal considerations, even if compared to Robert Scoble I’m just an ant.

Things with which I agree with him:

  • Apple is the only company having the power to create a new market. If Apple says to people to use AR, people will use AR. So we have to be careful to what it does;
  • Apple is the only company that has full power on its hardware. One of my favourite books has been the Steve Job’s biography (awesome, if you haven’t read it, do it immediately) and there the writer underlines the advantage of Apple of having full control on its platform, both on a software and hardware standpoint. While I’m an advocate of freedom, this has some incredible advantages. If Apple wants to add 3D sensors to its devices, it does that… and after that all iOS software can expect to run on a hardware using 3D sensors. On Android it is different: even if Samsung decided to add 3D sensors to its phones, all other Android phones won’t have that and for Android developers would be a nuisance to develop apps without knowing the capabilities of the target devices. Android market is too fragmented;
  • ARKit will disrupt the AR market for sure. Apple will become the biggest AR platform out there, with huge numbers that no competitor will be able to offer. This is already planned: 250 devices will become immediately AR ready and every AR/VR developer will find this enormous market appealing. This will cause an enormous flood of apps to this platform and so a great ecosystem for Apple AR (and I always say that a great ecosystem is the true killer app);

  • Apple will increase the awareness of people towards AR more than Pokemon Go, thanks to powerful marketing intiatives. As a dev has said to me “ARKit is the new Pokemon Go”;
  • Apple is betting huge on AR: it has always said that. Since AR glasses are the next smartphones, Apple should be ready for this switch… knowing Apple, I think that IT wants to be the one performing the switch. An Apple Glass will surely come;
  • While others, like Google and Microsoft, are focused on cool gadgets for nerds, like Tango and HoloLens, Apple will win offering easy AR to people on a cool device they already know. Times are not ready for an AR glass, but are mature for AR on smartphones;
  • iPhone8 could be the first device with incredible AR and VR functionalities;
  • Apple is showing a vision that starts from many years ago (acquisition of companies, etc…) and who knows what are the plans for the future years.

Considerations that instead make me doubt:

  • Personally I don’t believe in a GearVR made by Apple. Tim Cook has said many times that Apple is not interested in VR and in fact they’ve made the Mac compatible with SteamVR so that Apple users can use the Vive. It is true that people would like to have the Apple brand on their faces, but I don’t think they would like to have something awkward like a VR headset in their faces. I mean, a VR headset looks like a device for nerds, not something cool and trendy. In Job’s biography another point that got clear to me is that Apple loves to wait until everything is ready to make a technology simple and usable… and unless they have some UX ace in their hole, I don’t think that VR is at that stage. I believe more in 3d parties making Cardboard-like headsets that exploits iPhone8 VR potentialities, but this would mean that Apple will not make marketing for this products, so there will be less awareness;

  • Since the death of Jobs, Apple is not innovating that much anymore. Last innovations have been a “meh” and the praised Apple Watch has sold less then expected. And a lot of people that has bought it, is not using it anymore. The Watch has failed because they didn’t release something that was useful and with a great UX… I guess that Job’s Apple wouldn’t have released something like that;
  • We don’t know when Apple will want to push on AR and VR. Surely they have a long term vision and surely at some point they will want to push on these new techs… and surely when they’ll push on them, people will go nuts for them. But we don’t know if it will be now or in half 2018 or whenever. It may also be that Apple wants to give ARKit a slow start and so won’t make too much marketing on it for the first months. So we don’t know when the disruption will happen. Likely at the iPhone 8 announcement, but we’re not sure;
  • Content is the king. As I’ve said, ecosystem is the true killer app. But what happens if smartphone AR proves to be useless? I admit I’m not a huge fan of smartphone AR… holding the screen with the hands is so uncomfortable… then seeing the virtual things through the screen reduces a lot the WOW effect that you instead have with devices like the HoloLens. I have never seen a smartphone AR app that has excited me and looking at all ARKit demos out there, I’m still not impressed. This is the best I’ve found so far and I think that it is quite uncomfortable to be used in the streets (you would look like a Pokemon Go zombie).https://twitter.com/AndrewProjDent/status/888380207962443777So if developers won’t be able to create amazing AR apps, apps that are useful and with a great UX, well, every user will play with all ARKit apps for 4-5 days and then won’t use them anymore. ARKit could be the next Apple Watch in this sense. Of course I hope not, but it may be. All Android phones have already AR functionalities thanks to Vuforia, but I don’t see a single person using that every day;
  • The comparison with the first iPhone seems a bit exaggerated to me. That was a total disruption in mobile phones (phones became like portable PCs), here we’re talking about a great implementation of features into a phone (phones have more functionalities);
  • AR and VR are different and each tech has its purposes. If I wanted to make a moving storytelling experience like Dear Angelica, I’d still use the Oculus Rift; if I had to showcase 360 videos, I’d still use GearVR. So ARKit won’t replace everything and non-Apple VR developers will continue to exist. But people could start craving for having a new iPhone and so not spending money for a Rift anymore and this could be a problem for the whole non-Apple VR ecosystem. The risk is not that Oculus disappears, is that Oculus becomes (i.e. remains) a niche;
  • VR market is evolving, too. Facebook has already announced a standalone VR headset priced at $200 for next year. Vive 2 is coming. We won’t know what these evolutions will carry with them.
  • Facebook Camera. Don’t forget that Facebook (that already owns Oculus) has already its AR framework for phones ready. Don’t forget that. Zuck has plans, too.

  • Users are unpredictable. If market analysts make so wrong predictions about AR/VR market is because people are just unpredictable. ARKit could be awesome and have awesome apps, but people could dislike it for whatever reason (battery lasts too few; they hate looking like zombies; some Youtubers said that AR is bad and so they don’t use it; etc…). So we actually won’t know what will happen until the day it will happen 🙂

Scoble says to put our bet. My bet is in Apple ARKit becoming the biggest AR platform out there and in Apple creating a big awareness towards AR and VR and this in the end will become beneficial to the whole market. I also believe that market dynamics will change. But I think that how much big this impact will be will depend on the usefulness of the content created on this platform. Because Apple power is great, but no user uses useless things (hope you appreciated all those “use”-words).

And that’s it. Before you subscribe to my newsletter, I ask you to tell me (in the comments or on my social channels) your opinion about this: Will Apple change the AR market? And what about the VR one? Let me know!

 

Skarredghost

AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I've still not waken up...