Editorial: Now Is The Right Time For Apple To Rally VR Devs

Apple is expected to announce new iPhones on September 15th. Is it unreasonable to expect Apple to announce its intention to make a Quest competitor then, too?

Probably, but a report earlier this year from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman suggested “Mike Rockwell’s team of 1,000 engineers” at Apple is working on a headset and “although plans could change, in an all-hands meeting last fall, Rockwell said the first headset may be announced next year and released in 2022.”

So yes, it could be too early and unusual for Apple to commit to those sorts of plans now. Earlier this year, Apple shipped a Lidar-powered iPad Pro which can offer dramatically upgraded AR views. Apple’s announcement for its September 15th event includes an AR-based teaser. Is that a hint new iPhones are likely to get this feature too? Is that all that’ll be revealed at the event?

A lot changed between fall 2019 and summer 2020. The pandemic drove people to seek extended time with indoor entertainment and, throughout it all, Facebook saw sustained high demand for Oculus Quest. This year is understandably a blur, so it is easy to forget that even before the pandemic hit Quest was hard to find on physical store shelves.

Oculus Quest proved the viability of standalone VR. For some devs, Quest offers some of the highest VR software sales seen on any VR platform yet. The truth of that relationship, though, is it isn’t a partnership with a dependable future when your next project as a developer could be blocked by Facebook from release on the only major standalone storefront.

Entering The Market At The Right Time

If Apple is serious about transitioning developers and customers from 2D screens to 3D spatial interfaces one day, developers need to know there’s more than just iPhone-based AR to look forward to.

Developers also need real expectations regarding fundamental things like input to even begin thinking about what might be possible with Apple VR. The differences are substantial jumping from 2D development to 3D spatial interaction, and it can also take significant time to develop the most interesting VR experiences.

Putting this another way, a significant segment of VR developers hope they can become less dependent on Facebook for their income, and a significant segment of the people who already buy wearable computers would rather not be forced to log into Facebook. Apple is already the maker of some of the most popular wearables, including AirPods and Apple Watch, and if developers know an Apple “Reality” headset is on its way, the entire conversation around VR will change. At the very least, joining the ranks of Beat Games, Sanzaru Games, and Ready At Dawn at Facebook would likely make less sense to some VR developers who could aim for their software project to run on millions of Apple headsets, too.

I think there’s enough evidence in the success of VR developers on Quest to argue Google entered the VR market too early with Cardboard and Daydream, yet also pulled the plug too fast just when things were starting to get interesting with the Mirage Solo and its 6DoF controllers and standalone VR tracking kit. If you believe Facebook’s head of VR Andrew Bosworth, the “inflection point” for VR adoption was “last fall” and “the pandemic has accelerated it.”

Picking the right time to enter a market with a fantastic user interface is perhaps one of Apple’s biggest strengths. Facebook’s Quest, with its completely wireless “Oculus Insight” inside-out tracking system, is the kind of magical software experience I would expect out of companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft. From the perspective of Facebook executives, the “Insight” system is the specific piece of Quest’s technology that’s proven a fully standalone VR headset is both a viable market for devs and a compelling product for customers. This is only true because Quest features both engaging content and a tracking system that’s so easy to use it melts into the background of the experience until needed. “Insight” is what allows the Quest to stand on its own and I expect Facebook’s next major advances in VR and AR to be seen in updates to the system.

“Insight” on Quest frees up the headset from dependence on nearby gadgets. With no external requirements, Quest is free to look at nearby computers as accessories to the experience in VR. Quest, for example, can cast the view it provides in VR to a TV screen or phone. If you have a nearby gaming PC wired to the headset, you gain access to a number of VR games featuring the most complex physics and substantial graphical detail. And in VR games like Acron: Attack of the Squirrels, players on tablets and phones can share a game against someone in VR.

I’d expect Facebook executives to be looking at this solid foundation and using it to think about ways of capturing computer users for the next few decades. Are Apple executives looking at the future the same way?  What does Apple’s version of a system like “Insight” look like, and how well does it work?

VR Enhanced By AR

Over the last year Facebook started superpowering its Quest VR headset with features that might be described as augmented reality or mixed reality. You can now set up your safe playing area for VR with just your bare hands, for instance, and the headset warns you during setup if there’s an object in your play space. Plus we’ve seen evidence Facebook may soon be able to incorporate your couch and physical keyboard into your virtual world.

Does Apple plan to do these sorts of things too? What about incorporating iPhone, iPad, AirPods, and Apple Watch into the virtual world delivered by Apple-branded eyewear? I think the period of excitement surrounding VR development we saw in 2016 would appear small next to what we’d see if Apple confirmed plans for anything similar to Quest and its Oculus Insight system.

In my last editorial I noted this sense that VR enthusiasts can be thought of a bit like the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Every year we get our hopes up that VR will break into mainstream, and each year VR’s reach never quite matches expectations. Maybe I’ve let that enthusiasm get away from me again here, expecting too much too early from Apple.

Sept. 15 could certainly come and go with no “one more thing” offering insight into Apple’s plans for a headset. Its absence is to be expected, to be honest. Still, Apple does have an opportunity now, and in the near future, to inspire developers and shift the conversation around AR and VR in significant ways.

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