Apple just dropped another major clue about its next big computing platform — and it’s not virtual reality (VR).
Right now, we’re in the middle of a major wave of hype around VR. Sony just brought out the PlayStation VR, and Google recently announced more information about its mobile-powered Daydream headset. Meanwhile, Facebook has Oculus, and HTC has Vive — but Apple has conspicuously yet to announce anything to do with the tech.
But it sounds like that’s because the Californian technology giant has its eyes set on a different prize: Augmented reality (AR).
“VR, I think, has some interesting applications, but I don’t think it’s a broad-based technology like AR,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told BuzzFeed News in an interview.
Augmented reality works by overlaying information and visuals onto the users vision via a headset that corresponds and reacts to the physical world around them. So while VR cuts you off entirely from the “real” world, AR can enhance it. You might theoretically use it to make it seem like someone thousands of miles away is in a meeting with you, or to model a product under development in 3D, or play a platforming game that interacts with your lounge.
“Augmented reality will take some time to get right, but I do think that it’s profound,” Cook said. “We might … have a more productive conversation, if both of us have an AR experience standing here, right? And so I think that things like these are better when they’re incorporated without becoming a barrier to our talking. … You want the technology to amplify it, not to be a barrier.”
This isn’t the first time the Alabaman executive has bigged up augmented reality’s prospects at the expense of virtual reality. At a recent talk in Utah, he said that he believed AR would eventually become as ubiquitous and common-place for people as “eating three meals a day.”
He added (emphasis ours):
“Nobody in here, few people in here, think it’s acceptable to be tethered to a computer walking in here and sitting down, few people are going to view that it’s acceptable to be enclosed in something, because we’re all social people at heart. Even introverts are social people, we like people and we want to interact. It has to be that it’s likely that AR, of the two, is the one the largest number of people will engage with.”
Apple has yet to announce any commercial augmented reality hardware products. As such, Cook’s statements — while vague — provide us with a fascinating insight into what the famously secretive company considers an area of interest and potential in the future.
Tim Cook was talking in theoretical terms about the potential of the “wrist” and wearable tech more than a year before Apple announced the Apple Watch in September 2014, in much the same way that he now talks about AR. “The wrist is interesting. It’s more natural. But to convince people they have to wear something, it has to be incredible… I think there are other things in the space that could be interesting. Sensors are exploding. With the arc of time, it will become clearer,” he said back in May 2013.
And Cook has teased that Apple is actively developing augmented reality tech on some level. “Yes, it’s something we’re doing a lot of things on behind that curtain we talked about,” he said in August 2016.
In short: Apple thinks virtual reality will be great — but day-to-day, it will just get in the way. Augmented reality, capable of enhancing our experiences instead of interrupting them, is where the real money’s at.
“There’s no substitute for human contact,” Tim Cook told BuzzFeed News. “And so you want the technology to encourage that.”