The iPhone 7 won't be remembered for being the first iPhone without a dedicated headphone jack. Instead, we will look back at this year's flagship iPhone as the starting point of Apple's major push into augmented reality. The two cameras that make up the dual-camera system found in the iPhone 7 Plus are a pair of "smart eyes" that will alter the way we use an iPhone. As wearable devices become proactive assistants monitoring a greater portion of our daily routines, the iPhone will be positioned as the most powerful piece of glass for hundreds of millions of people.
Using iPhone 7
Each year, Apple's goal with the iPhone business is to come up with a new model that is more capable and functional than the previous year's model. Apple accomplished that goal with the iPhone 7. I have been using a Jet Black iPhone 7 Plus since launch. Without question, it is an upgrade from my iPhone 6s Plus. The three new features that have stood out include stereo speakers, a more expansive rollout of haptic feedback, and the dual-camera system.
Having used stereo speakers with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro, I was well aware of how significant a role the feature played in terms of improving the user experience. Given the increasing amount of content I consume on my iPhone, the double increase in sound output with the iPhone 7 is noticeable and welcomed.
In what came as quite a surprise, I have been impressed with the haptic feedback expansion seen with the iPhone 7. Everything from editing photos to setting clock alarms now includes subtle vibrations. The primary reason the additional haptic feedback has stood out to me is that the feeling of using a smartphone has changed. Instead of just typing and swiping on a piece of glass, it now feels like I am interacting with the same piece of glass in a different way.
However, without question, the one iPhone 7 feature to stand out the most has been the camera. Using optical zoom on an iPhone Plus was a genuine "wow" moment up there with using Siri for the first time or using my fingerprint to unlock an iPhone. Such a feature not only makes us rethink the iPhone's capabilities, but also leads us to imagine the future possibilities.
The iPhone 7 Camera
Apple has relied on the camera to accomplish its goal of shipping new iPhones that are more capable and functional than their predecessors. Apple reportedly has an 800-member team of engineers and other specialists focused just on the iPhone camera.
Management spent 12 percent of the Apple keynote earlier this month talking about iPhone cameras. (My thoughts and observations from the keynote are available here and here.) After going over all of the new features that position the iPhone 7 camera as the best camera Apple has ever shipped in an iPhone, Apple SVP Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller turned to the iPhone 7 Plus camera. Rumors of Apple including a dual-camera system in an iPhone had been around for more than a year. In April 2015, Apple's LinX acquisition was a giveaway that the iPhone camera was going to see an upgrade in a very big way.
The dual-camera system found in the iPhone 7 Plus is a game changer. With a wide-angle 28mm lens and a telephoto 56mm lens, an iPhone now has 1x wide angle, 2x optical zoom, and software zoom up to 10x. After a few days of use, I'm confident in saying 2x optical zoom by itself would classify as a worthy iPhone upgrade for many iPhone users.
In addition to optical zoom, the dual-camera system is capable of a few other items with much more important long-term implications. Here's Schiller:
"There's one other use of this [dual-camera system] that we challenged our engineering team to do as an extra credit project. It really was. It's something that is incredibly challenging and takes a lot of amazing invention. But what they have been doing is astounding and it's something that is a big breakthrough in photography..."
The iPhone 7 Plus is capable of producing a depth-of-field effect using machine learning. This serves as the foundation for turning the iPhone into an augmented reality device. By using the distance between the two cameras located on the iPhone Plus, software allows an object's distance from the iPhone to be calculated using triangulation. A 3D depth map can then be created. As seen in the graphic below, two cameras and software are able to create a depth map from a photograph. One result is that two people in the front are kept in focus while a blur is applied to the background. All of this is done in real time.
Here is how Apple describes the dual-camera system found in the iPhone Plus 7: "This is the best camera we have ever made in an iPhone. This is the best camera ever made in any smartphone. For many of the customers who have it, it will probably be the best camera they have ever owned to date. But more importantly, it allows them to create beautiful pictures with incredible creative tools."
Notice how Apple is not positioning the dual-camera system as the beginning of its move into augmented reality. Instead, Apple is marketing it as a way to take great pictures. In this way, the dual-camera system is similar to Siri, Touch ID, and 3D Touch as features with humble beginnings.
Over the years, many of the most important features to come to the Apple ecosystem were launched as somewhat basic and rudimentary iPhone features.
- Siri told funny jokes.
- Touch ID unlocked iPhones.
- 3D Touch made Live Photos come to life.
In each case, a feature was introduced not to set the world on fire overnight, but rather to serve as a foundation for future innovation and functionality. Siri has grown from giving funny, canned responses to being one of the most widely-used personal assistants that relies on natural speech processing. Touch ID is now used to facilitate commerce with Apple Pay. 3D Touch has transformed into an emerging new user interface revolving around haptics and the Taptic Engine.
The dual-camera system found in the iPhone 7 Plus will be added to this list of essential iPhone features with modest beginnings. While currently billed as a great tool for photographers, the dual-camera system will eventually redefine the iPhone.
While much has been written about augmented reality, very little has actually been said about the technology's potential. Up to now, augmented reality has been mostly a buzz word, defined by mobile apps that overlay data in a real-world setting. Most augmented reality demos don't exactly leave much to the imagination. In the beginning, it was an app that would show directions to the nearby subway station. More recently, Pokemon Go bought this same basic idea of augmented reality to the masses.
The value in augmented reality won't be found by just interlacing objects with a real-world layer. In such a scenario, we are simply throwing data at our surroundings. Instead, augmented reality's promise is actually found by extracting data from the world around us and then using that information to enhance our surroundings. This is why I think of augmented reality more as "enhanced reality" and why powerful cameras will play such an important role.
The iPhone 7 Plus dual-system camera is able to extract more data than any other iPhone camera. When combined with software and other technologies, this data will become incredibly valuable for Apple's augmented reality efforts. In an effort to obtain those specialized technologies, Apple has been on a buying spree for augmented reality startups including Metaio, Emotient, Polar Rose, Faceshift, PrimeSense, Flyby Media, and Perceptio. The dual-camera system found in the iPhone 7 Plus is the first step in Apple turning the iPhone into a key component of an augmented reality platform relying on much of the technology acquired these past two years.
While the Phone will become a key part of Apple's augmented reality platform, there will be a range of devices capable of enhancing reality through both visual and audible feedback. One reason why Apple has no other choice but to get into transportation is that automobiles will end up representing a superior use case for augmented reality. As it stands now, riding in an automobile provides a warped sense of reality. This can be seen by the different perception obtained when driving down the road or walking along the same roadway. When walking, much more information and data is obtained. It almost feels like an entirely different road. Accordingly, the automobile will present a perfect opportunity to bring augmented reality to a "room" on wheels. Even AirPods will likely play a role in Apple's augmented reality play. A device that will be able to extract data (sound waves) from the real world will be able to enhance one's surroundings through audible feedback.
The Most Powerful Piece of Glass
We are beginning to see the early stages of a new product era at Apple. New devices are being introduced that will ultimately be able to handle many of the tasks that we currently give iPhone. In 2015, Apple unveiled its first wearables platform with Apple Watch. Seventeen months later, Apple has sold 15 million Apple Watches. Earlier this month, Apple unveiled its second wearables platform with AirPods. These devices are going to be positioned as monitoring devices that guide us through our daily schedule.
In this new Apple Experience era, the user determines the products that add the most value to their lives. For some people, wearables will play a crucial role. These users will assign products like Apple Watch and AirPods tasks that are currently given to iPhones, iPads, and Macs. In this example, while wearables gain value, it is not a given that the iPhone would lose value.
Instead of becoming something like an iPod, a product that will lose nearly all of its value over time due to other products handling the same roles, the iPhone will likely be able to retain its value because of the camera. The iPhone will be able to stand out among a world of wearables given its powerful cameras and ability to extract data from a scenario. Hundreds of millions of people will find a need for such a product, even if it isn't the hub of their digital lives. By turning the iPhone into an augmented reality device, Apple will be positioning the iPhone as the most powerful piece of glass in our lives, and it all started with the iPhone 7.
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