In the course of covering Apple, VR, and 5G for VentureBeat, I digest lots of small data points every day. Some of them arrive as complete stories — a product announcement, a major rumor, or a corporate development — but there are also loose bits of information floating around, just waiting to come together into something bigger.
One example’s been rattling around in my head for almost two weeks. During an interview, Apple’s design chief Jonathan Ive said that the Apple Watch wasn’t meant to solve an existing problem or address an existing need. Instead, he hinted that it was released to prepare users for the future.
I don’t think there was a problem specifically. It was more a matter of optimization — of opportunity … Many of us have our phones with us all the time, but they aren’t connected to you. Imagine having something this powerful with you at all times, and what opportunities that might present to the user … Particularly when [you] don’t understand just where we are today in terms of technology and capability, but where we are headed.
If you follow Apple, that’s a really unusual statement. Effectively, Ive was saying to look past the Apple Watch as it was when it was released, or where it is today, and think about what could be done in that form factor going forward.
Where are we today in terms of technology and capability? The top-of-line Apple Watch has a processor that’s roughly as powerful as the third-generation iPhone’s. It can deliver a measly hour of battery life when used as a cellular phone, but last all day as a passive timepiece and barely-used engine for apps. You can use it to play music and short videos, receive or send text messages and emails, and do basic biometric and location tracking. It’s steps behind the iPhone, but stronger than many iPods.
So where is Apple headed? The interview didn’t say, but there are a few clear dots we can connect. On the chip side, Apple’s strategy has been to keep delivering improved performance each year with similar battery life, leveraging chip design and manufacturing improvements. It could switch those priorities any year to improve battery life while keeping performance the same, but let’s assume that like the iPhone, it generally won’t. Within the next few years, the Apple Watch would have enough horsepower to roughly rival an iPhone 5, only with a much smaller screen.
We also know that Apple is working on its own next-generation Micro LED screens — including both Apple Watch and smaller 0.7- to 0.8-inch versions that will apparently produce even better imagery than today’s Retina displays. For the first time, the company will have employees publicly leading discussion panels on cutting-edge screen technologies at this week’s Display Week in Los Angeles.
Last but not least, we know that Apple has described augmented reality as a core technology for the company going forward, and hinted that it’s working on more than just ARKit for iOS. The implication is that AR won’t be limited to just iPhone and iPad screens, and since Macs and Apple Watches couldn’t do much with AR, glasses make sense. Reports have established that it’s currently testing AR glasses in its labs, and patents have shown that it’s imagining a future when your computer — including word processing — is entirely contained in those glasses, rather than carried around separately.
The issue with glasses is that their frames don’t have much space for even single-chip CPU/GPU solutions, large batteries, or cellular components. Antennas will fit, assuming you’re OK having a cellular phone literally attached to your head, but the rest is a challenge to blend into regular eyewear unless you want to look like Star Trek’s Borg. (Sorry, Google Glass users.)
Put all of these elements together and you can begin to picture a not-too-distant future in which prescription eyewear-like AR glasses and iPhone-caliber Apple Watches could go mainstream. Rather than loading the glasses up with processing and cellular hardware, they’d wirelessly grab data from the computer on your wrist or in your pocket. Instead of grabbing your laptop or sitting down at a desktop computer, the screens in your glasses would just display the same (or improved) apps and interface.
Today, the Apple Watch and similar wearables can be written off as luxuries, glorified heart rate trackers, or pointlessly limited computers. Apart from “letting you escape from your phone,” early justifications for these devices were often hard to enunciate.
My belief is that the long-term plan isn’t to help you escape from your phone. Instead, the features of that phone are going to be on your wrist or directly in your eyeballs until you physically pry them off of your body. And if that plays out as it did with the growth of smartphones, that won’t sound as horrific to the next generation of users as it might to this one.