Apple isn’t interested in Virtual Reality. At least, not the kind that requires ski goggle style devices. So why would they acquire NextVR, a company that specializes in streaming live events into VR?
Some outlets speculate that it’s for the patents. And that’s part of the story. But it’s best put in the context of where Apple wants to go next, and what the road map will be to get there.
Apple Isn’t Developing VR Headsets
The conventional wisdom seemed to take hold at Business Insider, who reported that Apple was developing AR and VR headsets:
“The forthcoming product will become Apple’s first immersive headset, and when it launches, will join Apple’s wearable device segment — the tech giant’s fastest-growing business. Apple is also reportedly developing lightweight AR glasses that could launch as soon as 2023.“
There were further reports of internal meetings at Apple in which their roadmap included launching VR headsets first, followed by AR glasses:
“As well as the new timeline, The Information’s report offers new detail about Apple’s AR headset, codenamed N301. The device supposedly resembles a slimmer version of the Oculus Quest, a virtual reality headset released in May. It has AR and VR capabilities, uses external cameras to map the user’s surroundings (including the outlines of people, furniture, and rooms), and has a high-resolution display to show information and blend virtual objects with the real world. Employees were told that the company would be reaching out to developers to build software for the headset from 2021.“
But the stories run counter to how Apple actually operates.
Not least of which being how odd it is that they presented the roadmap to 1,000 people at the Steve Jobs Theatre in Cupertino.
Robert Scoble agrees:
Apple just won’t concern itself with VR, because it sees too many limitations that will keep it from selling tens, or hundreds of millions, of devices between now and 2025. Going after eye glasses, though, will prove much more fruitful. Apple does have a huge advantage, too, at least for next few years, because it sells mobile phones.
And I propose that when thinking about Apple Glasses, Apple won’t focus on creating “augmented reality”, they’ll focus on creating great prescription-ready glasses that can disrupt the $138B eye glasses market:
NextVR Is About Glasses (and TV)
So if our speculations are true and Apple isn’t going to jump in and make an Oculus clone, then why would they buy NextVR?
The answer, I think, has to do with my main premises for their Glasses road map:
- They will make beautiful glasses that do beautiful things, thus disrupting a $138B market for something as banal as helping you to see
- They don’t need to do THAT much to do beautiful things. I proposed for example that being able to act as progressive lenses might let them work in perfect synch with night/day mode across your various screens. (The Verge reports that “Apple has also reportedly explored lenses that darken when in operation, to signal to observers that the user is otherwise occupied.”)
- Their use of AR will be light at first, with richer 3D content to follow, perhaps after several generations of the wearables
But most important, the way they think about Apple Glasses will always:
- Tie back to how they work with other devices
- Tie back to whether they can support services. Apple is ‘all in’ on getting you to give them more of your dollars to sign up for subscription services, whether games, movies or music
And NextVR fits both key pillars to the Apple strategy:
- They have out-of-the-box relationships and capabilities to capture content that can beef-up Apple subscriptions and services
- They have technology that lets you capture, in real-time, positional and other data from live events. This real-time capture could let you do some pretty amazing things with your new Apple Glasses and….your Apple TV
Augmented Television is the Next Big Thing
Look, I don’t watch a lot of sports. So maybe that makes me notice it a bit more when I DO tune in.
The technology behind those graphics that get perfectly anchored to the field would have seemed like science fiction not too long ago. It’s actually pretty magical, and we don’t think too much about how many advances went into building these kinds of systems.
NextVR takes this to the next level. In fact, it isn’t the output that matters. It’s the process that it takes to get there.
Wearing a pair of Apple Glasses while watching your Apple TV could give you the same power that the broadcaster has: changing the camera position, seeing information overlays, doing replays from a different angle.
Is it as immersive as VR? No. But it serves a purpose for Apple: it pairs your Apple Glasses with another Apple device, and it boosts the ability for Apple to sell Apple TV subscriptions (now enhanced with AR).
NextVR Patents Tell a Story
One patent, for example, covers methods for how to fill in the ‘blanks’ in a 3D scan of a spatial scan:
Methods and apparatus for supporting content generation, transmission and/or playback
“Methods and apparatus for supporting the capture of images of surfaces of an environment visible from a default viewing position and capturing images of surfaces not visible from the default viewing position, e.g., occluded surfaces, are described. Occluded and non-occluded image portions are packed into one or more frames and communicated to a playback device for use as textures which can be applied to a model of the environment where the images were captured. An environmental model includes a model of surfaces which are occluded from view from a default viewing position but which maybe viewed is the user shifts the user’s viewing location. Occluded image content can be incorporated directly into a frame that also includes non-occluded image data or sent in frames of a separate, e.g., auxiliary content stream that is multiplexed with the main content stream which communicates image data corresponding to non-occluded environmental portions.”
And this description could be just as useful in developing AR as it would be in streaming to VR.
Another covers use of low-resolution images in playback devices, and again the output itself isn’t what matters:
“Given transmission constraints, e.g., network data constraints, associated with content being streamed, it may not be possible to stream the full 360 degree view in full high definition video to all customers seeking to receive and interact with the content.“
As we move towards shared AR experiences, these methods (along with things like 5G and edge computing) will be needed to make them happen.
The patents point to broad expertise in image capture and transmission. They don’t necessarily point to being ‘locked in’ to a particular type of output.
My hypothesis is that Apple never releases something until it’s beautiful, polished and supports their strategy of interlinking between devices and subscriptions/services.
In the past, they’ve held back on releasing code frameworks at the last minute because they weren’t yet ready for prime time.
Apple acquired Beats in 2014 and Jimmy Iovine’s role in helping Apple launch Music eventually made it clear that the acquisition wasn’t JUST about headphones.
The NextVR acquisition might be of a company that has VR in its name, but I believe it will actually support a longer-term Glasses road map, and, like the Beats acquisition, will pay off in ways that may take years to see.