All of the pieces are coming together for Apple to sell glasses. Using fashion and luxury lessons learned from selling Apple Watch, Apple will enter the glasses industry and in the process launch its first product category designed specifically for the augmented reality (AR) era. While ARKit has taken the world by storm, the development platform is already making it clear that new form factors are needed to take full advantage of AR. It is no longer a question of if, but when, Apple will use AR to rethink glasses.
ARKit is Apple's new framework for developing AR apps on iOS. Apple defines AR as the illusion of virtual objects placed in a physical world. There are three ARKit layers:
- Tracking. Using Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO), camera sensor data is combined with CoreMotion data to get the device's location and orientation.
- Scene Understanding. Using the camera view, the device can find horizontal planes in a room in addition to estimating the amount of available light in a scene.
- Rendering. A constant stream of camera images, tracking information, and scene understanding can be inputted into any renderer.
ARKit transforms iPhone and iPad cameras into smart eyes. Developers then use those eyes, and the technology already found with iPhones and iPads, to enhance our reality. Of course, that enhanced reality is constrained to what appears on our iPhone and iPad screens. Despite this limitation, the possibilities seem limitless.
While some of the earliest examples are interesting, it is difficult to ignore how many of these examples make more sense for a pair of AR glasses. Any AR app involving holding up an iPhone or iPad while not requiring much user manipulation directly on screen makes more sense for glasses. For example, virtual turn-by-turn directions are destined for AR glasses as it’s just not ideal to have to hold up a smartphone in front of our face as we are walking down the street.
This isn’t meant to discredit iPhones and iPads as powerful AR tools. In fact, the iPhone’s future will be one as an AR navigator. However, wearable form factors will likely outpace iPhone and iPad over the long arc of time in terms of their ability to extract utility from AR.
AR glasses check off all of the boxes for a product in Apple's wheelhouse and are deserving of a rare green light to market.
- Hardware and software integration. There is room for Apple to create value by controlling both the hardware and software comprising AR glasses. The sum will be greater than its parts.
- Wearables manufacturing. Apple is learning quite a bit about manufacturing techniques and materials from Apple Watch and AirPods. These lessons can be transferred over to glasses, an item that will need to include a plethora of technology yet remain light.
- AR technology. Apple's big bet on AR will represent the catalyst for turning glasses and sunglasses into something more. An engaged base of iOS developers experimenting with ARKit will give Apple Glasses a hospitable app environment.
- Personal technology evolution. AR glasses represent the evolution of Apple's decades-long quest to make technology more personal - allowing people to get more out of technology without having it take over their lives.
- Fashion and luxury themes. Apple Watch has taught Apple much about how to get people to wear personal technology.
- Health/Medical. The ability to improve one's vision fits within Apple's expanding interest in health and medical.
- Retail demoes. Nearly 500 Apple Retail stores offer prime demo areas for customers to try on various glasses.
In terms of selecting the next big industry and product category to enter, AR glasses are high on Apple's list.
Glasses are Misunderstood
Glasses have gotten a bad rap. The item hasn't been able to shake the connotation of being a medical device used grudgingly by those in need of clearer vision. It is still commonplace for people to say something along the lines of "I wouldn't wear glasses if I didn't need to." Such a description undersells glasses, ignoring the device’s purpose and potential.
People wear glasses because they provide utility. For many, that utility comes in the form of improved vision. This is another way of saying corrective lenses (glasses and contact lenses) provide a clearer sense of reality to the wearer. Recent statistics show that nearly 75% of the population has vision that can be improved with corrective lenses. For certain age demographics, the percentage is even higher.
It cannot be overstated how clearer vision is one of the most value-add items a product can provide to its user. There aren’t too many gadgets or devices that would be selected over a smartphone in terms of its importance in our lives. However, corrective lenses would certainly be at the top of the list for many people. Corrective lenses are even required for certain tasks, such as operating heavy machinery like cars. In these situations, clearer vision isn’t just a luxury, but it's a requirement to ensure one's safety.
Glasses also provide a different kind of utility than clearer vision. A growing number of people are wearing glasses despite having perfect vision. Glasses are increasingly becoming accessories for the face, a fashion item complimenting a particular outfit, haircut, or even social occasion. Sunglasses have become a universal fashion accessory. A quick stop by the local shopping mall will reveal a number of stores focused on selling one accessory: sunglasses. Consumers have thousands of frames to choose from in order to find that one pair of glasses that best matches their personality. The glasses/sunglasses industry, led by Luxottica, has played a major role in pushing this new fashion narrative.
Apple’s attitude toward face wearables has evolved. In 2013, Tim Cook was interviewed at the D11 conference, and the topic of wearable computing came up. Cook was very clear in his messaging: The wrist made more sense for computing than the face.
"I wear glasses because I have to. I can't see without them. So I kind of have that problem. I don't know a lot of people that wear them that don't have to. People that do wear them generally want them to be light, they want them to be unobtrusive. They probably want them to reflect their fashion, their style, and so forth. And so from a mainstream point of view, [glasses] are difficult...I think the wrist is interesting."
It's noteworthy how Cook undersold glasses, positioning them as merely something he was forced to wear. In early 2015, Jony Ive, overseer of Apple's product strategy, referred to the wrist as "the obvious and right place" for a wearable device while saying the face "was the wrong place." Cook once again dismissed glasses:
"We always thought that glasses were not a smart move, from a point of view that people would not really want to wear them. They were intrusive, instead of pushing technology to the background, as we’ve always believed."
It is easy to dismiss Cook's and Jony’s comments as simple posturing. In the case of Cook, Apple was well on its way to developing Apple Watch in 2013. It had become clear that the wrist would represent Apple’s entry into wearable computing. Regarding Jony's and Tim's later comments, Apple was just a few months away from the Apple Watch launch, arguably the largest product launch for the company since iPad. For them to talk up anything other than Apple Watch and wrist utility would have been surprising.
However, this current Apple management team is not big into misdirection. Apple rarely shoots down product categories only to enter the same space shortly thereafter. Instead, there is a good probability that management was actually not completely sold on the idea of face wearables (i.e. glasses) when Cook and Jony provided their comments. Cook’s initial comments took place well before Apple began acquiring AR companies, which likely play a crucial role in justifying Apple selling glasses. In addition, prior to Apple Watch, Apple had little experience in selling an item as personal as glasses or sunglasses.
I have held much hesitation over the years regarding the idea of wearing computers on the face. Much of this skepticism originated out of questions regarding design (how the device would be used). Computers on the face can very easily become a barrier to getting the most out of technology. Taking a look at the current lineup of computers designed to be worn on the face, it is not difficult to see why such hesitation has been warranted.
None of the preceding devices represent the future of face wearables for the mass market. The best case scenarios for such devices are found with niche applications such as gaming and certain enterprise settings. For AR glasses to go mainstream, the product will have to shed the “computers for the face” image portrayed by Google Glass, HoloLens, and every VR headset. This will involve innovative software and technology as well as a breakthrough user interface.
Apple's success with Apple Watch has done much to calm some of my fears and hesitation regarding face wearables. With 29 million Apple Watches sold to date, Apple has turned the dynamic of tech meeting fashion on its head. Apple has been able to get people to wear an item that was increasingly losing its place in a smartphone world.
Before Apple unveiled Apple Watch, smartwatches were bulky computers on the wrist with mediocre user experiences and questionable value. The product did not play in the fashion and luxury realms. Instead, smartwatches were judged by the degree to which their functionality could replace a smartphone.
Apple was able to completely change the connotation found with smartwatches and make them a mass-market item. The Apple Watch is now just as much of a fashion item as it is a computer. That is a good, not bad, thing. Watch bands and the ability to easily swap bands allow Apple Watch to be worn all day, every day, for various occasions and activities. Much of this dynamic can be recreated for glasses. Apple has the potential to change the narrative surrounding glasses, including our perception of the device.
In the clearest sign to date of Apple's growing interest in AR glasses, the company recently acquired SensoMotoric Instruments, an eye-tracking company. While the company's technology can improve various Apple products, my suspicion is the deal was all about Apple developing a pair of AR glasses that can be controlled by our eye movement. The idea of controlling technology using just our eyes is very intriguing.
Apple also acquired a number of AR-related entities in 2015 and 2016 including Metaio, Emotient, Polar Rose, Faceshift, PrimeSense, Flyby Media, and Perceptio. All of these companies in one way or another can play a role in Apple Glasses. In fact, all of the work Apple is doing with iPhone and iPad cameras can ultimately play a role in glasses.
When it comes to envisioning what a pair of Apple Glasses would look like, there is value in not overthinking the topic. Marc Newson, the most recent addition to Apple’s Industrial Design group, has experience designing face wear. In 2014, Newson designed various glasses (seen below) for Safilo as part of a special collection marking the company's 80th anniversary.
My suspicion is that Apple Glasses would look similar to Newson’s previous designs. Certain attributes such as being lightweight while having lenses with a large surface area will likely be carried over to Apple Glasses. There is precedent in Apple Industrial Design relying heavily on Newson's prior designs. A number of Apple Watch bands were clearly inspired by Newson.
Apple Glasses would be a mass-market item with a target market measured in the hundreds of millions of users – similar to Apple Watch and AirPods. The go-to market strategy for a pair of Apple Glasses is relatively straightforward. Consumers would purchase hardware via Apple (online and in store) and through third-party retailers including retailers focused on selling corrective lenses, such as LensCrafters.
Apple Glasses would be a continuation of Apple's wearables strategy. The product would initially be positioned as an iPhone accessory, similar to other Apple wearables including Apple Watch and AirPods. Apple would also likely launch glassOS in an attempt to create an ecosystem of third-party AR apps destined specifically for glasses.
Instead of selling just one version, Apple would likely sell an entire line of Apple Glasses including various lenses (prescription, light-responsive, polarized, and clear). There would also be different sizes for men and women. The prescription lenses carry the important implication of Apple Glasses following Apple Watch in potentially qualifying as an item covered by insurance plans. In addition, prescription glasses can be bought using flexible spending or health spending account dollars.
In terms of pricing, Apple Glasses would likely continue Apple's current strategy of underpricing their wearables relative to the competition.
It is crucial to not miss the forest for the trees when it comes to Apple Glasses. The device's purpose will be to enhance, not replace, reality for the wearer. As of today, glasses enhance reality by making things appear clearer. In the future, this utility will be transformed. Glasses will not just make our surroundings appear clearer, but also use AR to provide additional context related to our surroundings. The implications related to such a feature are far and wide.
This raises a few questions:
- What would be the "killer app" for Apple Glasses?
- Will Apple Glasses replace iPhones?
The idea of a product having a "killer app" has been misconstrued over the years. The iPhone really doesn't have a killer app. Instead, the device itself has turned into the killer app - the most valuable computer in our lives. In addition, the iPhone's role in our lives has evolved over time - a true sign of value. Apple Glasses would provide an improved view of the world to its user. For some, this will come in the form of clearer vision plus additional context. Others will gain value just from receiving additional context.
Apple Glasses won't "replace” an iPhone. However, it's not likely any product will replace the iPhone. Thinking about new products in the sense of their ability to replace existing products is faulty. iPhones and iPads didn't replace PCs and Macs. Instead, they became viable alternatives to PCs and Macs for hundreds of millions of people. Similarly, Apple Glasses will one day serve as a viable alternative to the iPhone, handling a new set of tasks never given to iPhone.
Historically, Apple has launched a major new product category every few years. While consensus thinks the gap between when Apple enters new product categories is something like three years, it is more likely five to seven years. However, there isn't a large sample size to allow us to place much confidence in any particular pattern. Since the Apple Watch was unveiled in 2015, Apple still has some time before the inevitable pressure arises for the company to launch a new product category. It is certainly plausible that Apple Glasses have become Apple's most likely new major product category, even ahead of any Apple transportation initiative. It is no longer a question of if Apple will sell its own AR glasses, but when.
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