Apple is poised to redefine social media. As computing shifts from our pockets to our faces, they will set the agenda for how users interact with and are represented in augmented reality.
Apple Glass will focus on trust, privacy, ‘hyper local’ interactions and authenticated micro-transactions. These core principles will then extend to how you connect, socialize and share with others.
Within 5-10 years, it will be possible to wear glasses that are untethered to a phone or computer. These glasses will seamlessly shift between augmented and virtual realities.
As more and more of the time we spend “digitally connected” shifts to eyewear, ‘social media’ will be redefined.
If Apple is able to establish market leadership for eyewear in the same way it has in tablets and watches, it will be able to reshape what social engagement looks like.
And while it may be a decade (or more) before a billion people are wearing their computers on their faces in the same way that they currently carry around an iPhone, Apple will at least spur radical debates and battles over the future of “social”.
Imagine a New ‘Social Media’
There are things we take for granted:
- Social media is “in the cloud“. We can only share with friends because the information is synchronous and centralized (and because of the other technologies underpinning Web 2.0)
- In exchange for the hosting and interface services provided by platforms such as Facebook, we agree that our data be used to advertise to us. It may be an uneasy truce, but WE are the product that the platforms sell. We have taken it for granted. People STILL say: “Yeah, I know I give up my data, but it’s worth it to stay connected”
- We generally end up with a large “loose” social network. These are people we don’t even know. Random people who seem to share the same interests on Instagram. The looseness of these networks leaves them open to bots, spoof accounts and spam.
- Content is 2D. It’s videos, selfies, messages. Sure, there are nascent social spaces in VR, but mostly what we see on the “web” and in our apps is two dimensional
- If you’re a content creator, it is almost impossible to get paid for your content. I’m not talking big magazines here or the New York Times. I’m talking about the person with 100k followers on Twitter who creates Tweets. She doesn’t get paid for those Tweets.
- Instead, you MAY be able to get paid as an “influencer“, which is a different way of becoming part of the larger Instagram/Facebook ad engine
But now imagine that the Internet itself had been built in a different way. Imagine that:
- Privacy was the default setting. Information was shared with the “cloud” only in rare situations
- Authentication and trust was also a default setting. People in our networks are people who we’ve generally seen in person. We have validated them through physical presence
- It is easy to pay for content. We can pop a little microtransaction to someone who has created something that we like, or we have ‘tipped’ a friend for something they have shared
- 3D content is as easy to view and share as 2D content. We can create and share little mini games, or a 3D scan of the new couch we bought, as easily as a viral video
- A lot of the content we engage with is hyperlocal. When we see a Yelp! review, we know that it was created in a specific place by a specific person. We are able to trust the system because we it can be authentically tagged to place and person.
It might sound like a mental exercise: a useful thought but a dead end.
And yet these features are, and will continue to be, baked-in to emerging augmented reality platforms.
Not all of them, to be sure. But some of them. And chief among them: Apple.
And so they will set new conditions for how we engage with technology, and as a result will create new criteria for how we engage socially.
There won’t be a big announcement from Apple. You’ll *never* hear them describe themselves as a social media company. And yet Apple is the unstoppable force hurling towards the immovable object of ‘social media’.
Other companies will follow suit.
Your augmented reality glasses won’t just be fashion statements or affordances: they will make a statement about your beliefs related to privacy, trust, and identity.
The Innovator’s Dilemma
Before we go further, let’s take a little detour into The Innovator’s Dilemma, the observation that “successful, outstanding companies can do everything ‘right’ and still lose their market leadership – or even fail – as new, unexpected competitors rise and take over the market.”
My mom still has an AOL account. But AOL itself was out-innovated by the Internet itself. Microsoft was famously late to realize the potential impact of the Web (until it wasn’t). Blackberry misunderstood the potential impact of the iPhone.
Technology is littered with reminders that The Innovator’s Dilemma can be real.
Platforms vs Models
We take it for granted that what Facebook and Google need to watch out for are new platforms. That Google could have lost out if it had not pivoted effectively to mobile. And so the danger in Google’s future is….well, whatever replaces mobile.
Facebook bought Oculus because they didn’t want to lose-out when it came to VR (and needed to build the capability to tackle AR as well).
(These days, it might not be engineers that challenge the Facebook hegemony. Instead, the content itself might be a tidal wave that sweeps it away.)
But there’s another way to look at The Innovator’s Dilemma (and there’s a twist on this for Amazon as well).
Christensen points out that it’s incumbency that’s the problem: you have huge sales and high margins. Your impulse is to protect the core of your business, and thus become blinded to how it gets nibbled away at from the margins.
And what are the incumbencies of Facebook and Google? Advertising.
The Innovator’s Dilemma for the current incumbents is a potential future in which advertising is no longer a brokerage system which matches user data to behaviour change to advertiser dollars.
Google and Facebook don’t need to worry about VR or AR or other devices: they need to worry that their ad models are eroded because better options come along.
From the Cloud to the Edge
At the AWE Conference, Qualcomm shared their projections for extended reality: within 5-10 years, augmented and virtual realities will ‘fuse’.
Edge computing. Cloud rendering. 5G. All of these technologies will help to offload the processing requirements of AR and VR from your device (your phone or your tablet).
They will make things like cloud gaming possible.
And what it means is that within a decade, we’ll be able to wear a device (glasses) which has access to all of the processing power of a game console, a VR headset and a rich 3D augmented reality experience.
The way we interface with technology will shift from our phones to our faces. Not all at once but in increments.
But the shift will be more pronounced than, say, how we divide time between our phone and our Apple Watch. A Watch is glanceable but our glasses will be always on.
The world itself will become an operating system, facilitated by AI, digital twins, 5G and a network of sensors.
We take it for granted now that mobile phones are here forever. Or that open source is a thing. That games will earn as much money as Hollywood and pop music combined.
But all of our assumptions will one day be replaced. And we will take whatever comes next for granted also.
Apple Is All-In On AR
So let’s assume that we’ll get to the point where significant numbers of people will wear some kind of visual device. VR headsets. Augmented reality glasses.
Maybe it will be 10 million or maybe it will be a billion. The timelines are unknown.
What we DO know is that Apple is all-in on AR. Tim Cook keeps saying it. They keep releasing more tools and frameworks to support it. And the rumours aren’t about whether they will launch AR glasses, it’s about when (and what they will look like).
Now, I don’t think we’ll see Minority Report style AR when Apple first launches. And I don’t think they’ll even call them “AR”.
Apple will be after the GLASSES market, not the “AR” market. They’re competing with Oakley, not Oculus.
But Apple Glass is coming. And they will set the stage for Apple to redefine what we mean by “social media”.
Redefining Social Media: Trust, Identity and Privacy
Imagine a ‘social’ media where you know who’s talking. It’s not some random dude spreading news clips that may or may not be true. It’s your friend George.
To simplify my point above, there are three drivers whose assumptions are “baked in” related to how we think about “social”:
- Identity can be ephemeral. Sure, there are ‘verified’ check boxes on Twitter, and you know that it’s really your brother on Facebook. But there are also bots, spoofs and multiple accounts
- Trust is difficult. Knowing whether content is ‘real’ is increasingly difficult. Computers can write the news, deep fakes are just beginning.
- Privacy is the price you pay to participate
Cook and Zuckerberg Face Off On Privacy
There is zero love lost between Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook. They live on absolutely diametrically opposed sides of the privacy divide, for example.
Apple started to heavily emphasize privacy a number of years ago. Emphasizing safety and privacy helps to sell phones.
But think as well about how this emphasis might play out against a much larger time scale: your devices will soon have access to your eye movements, to your precise location (down to a few centimetres), to your pulse and temperature.
When we start wearing augmented reality glasses, this privacy debate will take on supersonic importance. It will create raging debates and will be the source of concerns by governments and citizens alike.
Some people will shrug it off. Or they’ll shrug it off until the surveillance implications become clear.
I mean: what will it mean when two people enter a restaurant? One is wearing Facebook AR glasses and one is wearing Apple Glass. In your mind, will the two devices be equal when it comes to privacy and security? Or will you view them each in a different light?
Apple Glass: Trust What You See
I’ve previously written that I don’t think Apple will launch the rich 3D experiences that people anticipate when they anticipate AR glasses.
But then, most people aren’t sitting around waiting for “AR” anyways.
But as part of the exercise of thinking about what Apple will launch, I called it the “reality pops” approach:
“I can think of dozens of use cases for Apple Glasses. And most of them are based on extending the devices that you already have.…
And so the first thing that Apple Glasses will do, similar to the first things that Apple Watch did, is to extend the utility of the devices you already use.
I call this the “POP” principle. Apple Glasses could first focus on how to make reality ‘pop’: how to enhance it, how to enhance existing apps, and how to enhance existing screens like iPads, iPhones and Apple TV.”
But hand-in-hand with this value proposition, I can hear Apple adding another:
One of our core beliefs with the launch of Apple Glass is that you should always be able to TRUST WHAT YOU SEE. We’re building Apple Glass from the ground up with your privacy and security in mind. You will never doubt the authenticity of what you interact with when you use Apple Glass.
Apple Will Create Massive Barriers to Entry for Legacy Models
It will all sound so reasonable! Who doesn’t want to “Trust What You See”? Who doesn’t want to feel safe and secure when they use their pair of Apple Glass?
And isn’t it great that my friends won’t feel like I’m spying on them through my new pair of glasses? (Most current rumours exclude a camera, at least in the first iteration, of Apple Glass).
But there’s an implication here: apps and businesses that want to ‘data harvest’ from the new wearable won’t be able to.
OK, sure, Facebook can display a “message received” notice on your lenses. They might even be able to place Facebook content in the world around you. But they won’t be allowed to get data back that links these experiences to an individual user.
They won’t know what you’ve glanced at. They won’t know where you’ve walked in the store.
It’s entirely possible that Apple will lock down the granular data that is created by your glasses in the same way that FaceID is locked to the device: it’s never stored in the cloud. It’s never shared. It will never be the source of detailed tracking data except at an anonymized level.
Apple can’t kick Facebook from the App Store. But it can sure keep it off the bridge of your nose. And as computing shifts from phone to glasses over the coming decade, the winner of the war for optics will set the agenda for the portability (and sale) of this data.
(I’ve developed and launched apps for kids on iOS. Apple has locked these apps down so that almost zero data is shared with third parties. There are legal reasons, but they go well beyond “law”. If you think Apple can’t lock down an ecosystem, try to submit a kid’s app that has Crashlytics).
Augmented Reality as a New Social Media
So how does this get us to social media?
We take it for granted that “social media” means cloud-based, global systems for connecting with other people and sharing content.
But AR will facilitate the rapid expansion of another type of social experience: hyper-local, face-to-face, 3D, and potentially disconnected from the cloud.
Lessons from Cloud Gaming and Edge Computing
Matthew Ball’s thinking about cloud gaming and edge computing is instructive. He believes that MILE is a better paradigm for cloud gaming than thinking we can run console games on our phones:
“There will be many new genres created by cloud game streaming. However, we think the first is likely to resemble the experiences listed above – something we call “MILEs,” or “Massive Interactive Live Events.”
MILEs are distinct from most imagined versions of cloud games (e.g. a more realistic or complex Call of Duty) in that there is not a distinct simulation or processing of a game for every user. In most cases, there will just be one simulation and every player (and there could be millions of them) is a co-equal participant, as was the case in TPP.“
His take is instructive because it reminds us that when new technologies arrive, we tend to be wedded to older models: “Oh, Stadia will let us play console games without a console.” When the reality is that cloud games might look radically different: one “camera” for a million players who act as controllers. Sort of large-scale crowd-sourced gaming.
Social Media, Also, Will Not Look the Same
Just as edge computing will lead to new types of games, AR will lead to new forms of social media.
Think about some of the things that AR enables:
- Wearing your glasses, you’ll have instant ways to ‘connect’ with friends nearby. This creates a clear identity authentication layer because you’re connecting with real, physical people
- Often overlooked is the role that ultra-wideband will play. It, in addition to LiDAR, digital twin and other technologies will allow precise presence and then peer-to-peer networks that don’t require a ‘cloud’
- It will thus also be easier to share content, news, memes, photos and other assets with people nearby. No need to even go *through* the cloud, because device-to-device sharing will be easier
- You’ll be able to play games with the same ease as a board game night with friends. You can create and share a game space in the world around you and invite others to participate. The game itself can be an asset provided by a “cloud” but you no longer REQUIRE a cloud to track player participation or progress
- Content which is hyperlocal can be tied to presence. Sure, you’ll be able to pull up Pokemon Go, but you’ll also be able to see content which was placed in the space around you by other people. When I walk into a coffee shop, I’ll be able to see WHO placed a review, or took a photo. I’ll know it was someone in my neighbourhood and not some bot who has overrun Yelp!
In other words, AR allows for social interactions which can be based on trust, which don’t rely on connection to the cloud, which therefore protect privacy, and which facilitate social experiences and sharing.
The paradigm might not LOOK like Facebook, like Twitter. But it MIGHT feel more “real”. It’s based on physical bodies, physical connection, and it might shift some of our social attention away from platforms and back to the world around us.
Microtransactions and Safety “In Place”
Robert Scoble recently wrote a prescient piece on how Apple might subsidize the costs of Apple Glass: by enabling an in-store transaction, engagement and ‘payments’ layer:
“The power of Apple at retail is already pretty strong and it will, starting later this year, use these new QR codes, LIDARs, and, by 2023 Glasses. In fact, my friend in Israel says that at Apple there’s a new urgency to get glasses on the market to enable just this kind of use case and keep Amazon from doing damage to its partners with its new contact-less transaction stores, Amazon-Go (which uses hundreds of cameras and other sensors to watch you walk around a store and automatically charges you when you take products off of the shelf. Apple’s system can do the same with just a pair of glasses).”
His piece though also alludes to how Apple Glass will help to build these new ‘social’ engagements.
First, a big piece of his description revolves around ‘contactless transactions’. Enter a Starbucks and you won’t even need to take out your phone, let alone ‘tap’ it to pay. Your glasses will take care of authentication.
This opens the door to something else: microtransactions. What if instead of just paying for your coffee, your glasses can also be used to pay a friend? What if you want to “tip” someone for their content?
Jaron Lanier, and others, have long advocated that we solve the issue of microtransactions because in so doing, we can shift the emphasis away from advertising.
I am a content creator every time I Tweet. I don’t get paid for that content. But I also don’t pay to have Twitter hosted because I’m willing to sacrifice at the altar of the advertising gods.
WE become the product.
Microtransactions would help to solve this by reducing the burden on the platforms: instead of chasing ad dollars, they could focus on helping users “tip” each other for content. A penny here and a dime there for a New York Times article.
What Scoble is describing is an infrastructure for ‘in place’ and contactless transactions. Once we get used to this way of paying, it might not be a stretch to extend it to ad-free social connections that include microtransactions.
Clean Well-Lit Spaces
Scoble also proposes, as I did elsewhere, that QR codes will play a role in Apple’s AR ambitions. These codes help to position you within a space (within a digital twin).
But I also wonder whether they might form a ‘trust’ network with physical spaces? The QR codes have a distinct Apple design:
What if, instead of just being positional markers, they were also symbols of “trust”? What if these QR codes will NOT WORK unless you register them with Apple?
They could become trust-based check-in points for physical places. Whenever you see one of these codes, they trigger an experience on your Apple Glass. You know that the experience can be trusted, because it is associated specifically with Apple.
This speaks to the concept of the “clean well-lit room” first advanced by Eben Moglen:
“It has got to tell you what the rules are of the space where you are. It has to give you an opportunity to make an informed consent about what is going to happen given those rules. It has got to give you an opportunity to know those things in an automatic sort of way so I can set up…to say, you know what, I don’t go to places where I am on video camera all the time. Self, if you are about to walk into a room where there are video cameras on all the time just don’t walk through that door. So I don’t have to sign up and click yes on 27 agreements, I … (don’t) go into places that aren’t clean and well lit.“
The New Social Graph
Apple will create a new social graph. It will graph our friendships and social connections and it will ‘cohere’ them to physical presence and authentication.
The graph will go further: it will be linked to authenticated spaces and micro-transactions.
It will be a social graph that places us firmly in the physical world. It will be supported by technologies that allow us to TRUST WHAT WE SEE while at the same time allowing us to experience the joy of a reality that “pops”.
Apple won’t be the only player in augmented reality. Others will compete and there will be new flavours of privacy with each pair of glasses. (Even Microsoft is making interesting moves with Hololens and Azure Spatial Anchors, and is currently putting barriers in place to the type of data that will be stored in their ‘clouds’).
But Apple also has a larger field in which to play: how they approach glasses will extend over to how we watch Apple TV, or how we listen to Apple Music, or how we engage with Apple Arcade.
When we put on a pair of Apple Glass we’ll be entering a giant and closed ecosystem where, instead of our ‘freight’ being paid with our personal data, we’ll be paying for it with the services we subscribe to and the devices we buy.
Social media, advertising, computing, and how we engage with the world will never be the same.