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With Apple’s recent introduction of ARKit, developers have rushed to create seriously impressive AR demos for the iPhone. This has resulted in some futurists and techies proclaiming that the age of the smartphone has ended and that the takeover of AR smart glasses is not only inevitable but also imminent.
However, rumors of the smartphone’s death are greatly exaggerated — for now. In fact, the entire narrative of the smartphone “dying” at the hands of AR is fundamentally flawed. The smartphone will play a key role in powering the rise of AR wearables while continuing to evolve into ever sleeker and lighter form factors.
The global market for augmented reality (AR) products will surge 80 percent to $165 billion by 2024, according to research firm Global Market Insights. That might explain why Apple and Google-backed Magic Leap are potentially building the “smart glasses” that Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Facebook-owned Oculus Research, says are likely to one day replace the smartphone. “Twenty or 30 years from now, I predict that instead of carrying stylish smartphones everywhere, we’ll wear stylish glasses. Those glasses will offer VR (virtual reality), AR and everything in between,” he said recently.
Apple chief Tim Cook has also been bullish on the future of AR. “I regard it as a big idea, like the smartphone,” he told The Independent in a recent interview.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg may also be on a quest to kill the smartphone. “We all want glasses or eventually contact lenses that look and feel normal but let us overlay all kinds of information and digital objects on top of the real world,” he explained at this year’s F8 conference.
Apple, Magic Leap, and Facebook will likely join Microsoft and Snapchat in the AR race. Microsoft is working on Hololens, a head-mounted mixed reality headset that projects holograms onto the real world. Snapchat launched its Spectacles sunglasses to mixed reviews earlier this year.
AR has the potential to become ubiquitous. It holds promise in many industries, such as gaming, architecture, health care, retail, fashion, entertainment, military, and education. Yet many challenges exist. Most of the current options for AR smart glasses are either frail and poorly powered, or powerful and uncomfortably large. No provider has yet launched a device that is lightweight, reliable, and durable.
Another problem is that projecting 3D content in the world, in real time, will consume a substantial amount of power. Smartphones are likely to do much of the heavy lifting to prolong the battery life (and thus the duration of) AR sessions. Many tech titans and electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla are racing to develop alternatives to the lithium-ion batteries that power most mobile devices. However, such innovations have not yet made their way into smartphones, partly due to current manufacturing techniques, which are costly to change.
Content will be equally important. Useful applications are key to keeping consumers engaged and willing to spend lavishly on AR hardware. Snap, for example, rolled out lenses — a twist on its popular face filters that overlay digital images onto real ones. The app behaves as if an AR object exists in the real world: Walk closer to it and it gets bigger. However, most of Snap’s successful AR features have been centered on smartphones.
It’s tough to make wearables take off as global consumer staples. Apple’s first go at the category, the Watch, has failed to become a mass market hit. Apple doesn’t share unit sales numbers for the Watch, but a recent report claimed that sales of the product have fallen by as much as 90 percent. Let’s also not forget Google Glass, the hyped-up headset that flopped in 2014.
We are likely several years away from mass consumer adoption of AR, analysts at RBC Capital, the investment bank, say. It may be more likely that AR will be the chief companion of the smartphone. Indeed, Google is betting on that with its Project Tango, which integrates AR into existing smartphones through motion tracking, depth perception, and “area learning.” Facebook and Snap, meanwhile, are rushing to build the most powerful social AR machine that will largely run on existing smartphone hardware. And Apple is rumored to be placing 3D sensors into the dual-camera system in its upcoming iPhone 8.
Whether Facebook, Snap, or Apple succeed in generating mass consumer adoption of AR by merging the technology with smartphones, or whether smart glasses truly take off, remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: The smartphone will play an integral role in the future development of AR. Its days are far from numbered.
Michael Park is the CEO and founder of PostAR, a platform that lets you build, explore, and share augmented realities.
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