Here's why Apple shouldn't make augmented reality goggles

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This article appeared in the December 2017 issue of CRN magazine.

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Here's why Apple shouldn't make augmented reality goggles

COMMENT  |  The latest buzz on the “Apple has to build a ” rumour mill is that Apple has to build a pair of augmented reality spectacles, a device you wear on your face, overlaying information about the world around you onto your field of vision.

My take: poppycock. Balderdash, even, if you’ll excuse my language. 

I put this one in the same basket as “Apple has to build a car” and “Apple has to build a TV”. Apple has to build things that make sense for Apple to build. Cars and TVs and augmented reality spectacles are not in that category.

Why am I so sure? Because I’m pretty sure no-one outside of the tech industry bubble needs or wants augmented reality spectacles. The problem they solve – you have to look at your phone or other device to find information – is not as large as the problem they create: you look daft wearing them.

That’s been the argument against previous contenders in the space, Google Glass and Snapchat Specs. Both products made people wearing them seem… unpleasant, somehow.

Like, you know when a new iPhone is out, and there’s that one friend who always gets it on the first day and insists on showing it to you? Like, you’re happy that they’ve got a new device and you’re happy that they’re happy, but they didn’t need to show it to you?

Imagine if their new phone was stuck to their face so you couldn’t look at them without seeing it. That’s what augmented reality specs are like: a show-off thing that’s literally in your face. 

Both Google Glass and Snapchat Specs flopped to varying degrees, at least enough that neither is causing any great buzz now. So why the buzz around Apple?

Apple has built ARKit, a development framework for augmented reality applications, into its SDKs for its operating systems. It clearly thinks there’s a future for augmented reality and wants to be part of it. Maybe the problem with previous attempts was that no-one had found the “killer app” to make augmented reality compelling enough that people would endure the mockery of their peers in order to take advantage of it. Maybe giving ARKit to Apple’s global army of developers will make it more likely that “killer app” will appear. 

Maybe. But that still doesn’t mean Apple has to make the hardware. Apple has HealthKit there in the SDK too, but last time I looked there was no such thing as an iSphygmomanometer. Clearly Apple feels that is a third-party opportunity.

Just like it makes AppleTV set-top boxes and lets Sony et al worry about the economics of selling screens. Just like it makes CarPlay and lets other companies build the devices to make it work. Apple’s strength is in “making the whole widget” as Steve Jobs used to say — but it doesn’t have to make every widget.

Of course, the other reason pundits seem to think Apple ought to get into the optics biz is that both Google Glass and Snapchat Specs were objectively ugly devices, in different ways. Snapchat Specs looked cheap and plastic and ugly, Google Glass looked expensive and futuristic and shiny and ugly. Apple, on the other hand, has design guru Jony Ive, who can make anything look gorgeous.

Or so he says.

Think about it, though. Go into an optometrist shop or even one of those kiosks in a shopping centre selling sunglasses, and see how many designs there are. Try some on and look in the mirror. Some will look fine on you, some will make you laugh out loud at what a goose you look like. Someone else will come in and those goose ones will suit them fine.

All of those frames were designed by professional designers — some of them with similar stature to Sir Jony. None of those designers thought they could create one design that could suit every possible face and every taste. Do you imagine Jony Ive can somehow create spectacle frames that would look great on everyone and also contain the necessary tech to drive augmented reality? It’s a big ask.  Now go to your favourite search engine and look for images of “Jony Ive wearing glasses” to get an idea of his taste in eyewear. I rest my case.  

Matthew JC Powell is a technology commentator, philosopher and father of two, in no particular order

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