What Apple needs to get right to make its rumoured smart glasses a success

Goggle Glass: what not to do. Shutterstock

The Apple rumour mill is spinning with gossip that the company is reportedly developing and testing a set of augmented reality glasses. There’s little we know for certain about the plans, and the firm has reportedly not made a final decision about whether to commit to releasing a “smart glasses” product. But Apple has been enthusiastically recruiting engineers with expertise in both augmented and virtual reality.

There is strong speculation that any new wearable device from Apple will integrate with an iPhone and need one to operate, just as the Apple Watch does. Another rumour suggests Apple will add augmented reality capabilities to its iPhone camera so that it could recognise objects it filmed, including people’s faces. This raises the question of whether Apple would develop an additional wearable device that risked cannibalising a technology built into its flagship product.

But if the rumours of Apple’s smart glasses are true, there is plenty the company could learn from previous, largely unsuccessful attempts to make a head-mounted augmented reality display. When Google announced it was ceasing sales of its own Google Glass spectacles, some saw it as the start of a new phase of product development while others pronounced it a failure.

Privacy problems

Some of the key reasons why Glass was ultimately unsuccessful related to concerns about privacy and security. And there is little or no evidence those concerns have lessened in the last few years. With increasing numbers of reports about cameras being hijacked by hackers, fraudsters and even blackmailers, any new smart glasses could be seen as a window into our world for criminals.

There would certainly be doubts about giving a corporation direct access to what we see with our own eyes. Trust will be a key issue, and is still low between corporations and the public. As even the iPhone is no longer the legendary unhackable device it was once seen as, Apple would need to fundamentally boost consumer trust and confidence for it to win customers over.

Other reasons cited for the failure of similar products included cost, limited battery life, our attachment to mobile phones and unwearable design. Alongside smartphones, virtual reality headsets, smart watches and so on, smart glasses may be one gadget too many, especially as Apple entry level prices are still high for many consumers. Consumers have also been bruised by under-performing and even dangerous batteries, and smart glasses would be another device that drains the iPhone and needs its own charging.

In terms of design, many users ditched Google Glass because it was a long way from being seen as cool. Apple’s product will need to be something we actually want to wear when we are on pubic view. The company may do well to root a new spectacle product in the functional minimalism of its smartphone and tablet ranges. Yet while that design ethos has lifted Apple to the number one spot in the last decade, those designs are now also being seen as becoming too safe and repetitive.

Microsoft Hololens: who cares how it looks when it works? Microsoft

Microsoft is taking another tack with its HoloLens. In contrast to Google Glass, the device opts for an overtly tech look, an unashamedly prosthetic, even cyborg device. As a result, early reviews of the Hololens look past fashion design towards its potential for radical disruption.

There may be another more fundamental difficulty for Apple, however. Some commentators are suggesting current augmented reality technology is still too difficult for us to physically interact with. Apple would have to convince users that their new glasses are easy to use and will not lead us into brick walls or awkward interactions with family, colleagues, friends and strangers.

All this is important because Apple has been trading on long-past acts of creativity for years now. Judged by the mixed reaction to the Apple Watch, it’s not yet clear that wearables can change this situation or that a new set of smart glasses will represent a genuine disruption. There’s a chance that attempting to succeed with augmented reality will be seen as another “me-too” behaviour for the company.

Yet if Hololens or other products help augmented reality’s day to arrive sooner, and if Apple gets things right in terms of design, user experience, confidence and trust, it could be a breakthrough for the company.

The Conversation

Paul Levy owns shares in CATS3000 Limited

Virtual reality may soon change gigs forever

The pop sensation that is ABBA are reportedly coming back. That’s right, in 2018 the Swedish 70s superstars are set to tour a curious performance they call a new “virtual and live experience” in partnership with Spice Girls’ manager, Simon Fuller. What this extravaganza will entail is currently unclear – but the project promises to capitalise on our “new technological world”, making use of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. So, are we about to enter some new era of live music? And is the classic gig a thing of the past?

Of course, the use of emerging technologies for entertainment is nothing new. Musicians, movie technicians and performance designers have all attempted to harness the technology of the day to create something new with their music and performances.

Accomplished cinematographer Morton Heilig is often known as the father of virtual reality (VR) due to his fabulous “Sensorama” of the late 1950s and early 60s. Heilig created an immersive entertainment machine in which viewers could experience a specially made 3D movie – complete with sounds and smells. He also invented something he called the “Thrillerama Theatre Experience”, which mixed 3D images, projections and live stage action.

Billy Idol, rockabilly punk of the late 80s and early 90s, brought early concepts of VR, cyberspace and digital culture together with his music and performances on MTV. Idol used computer animation and stop frame animation inspired by the cult Japanese cyberpunk film Tetsuo to supplement his music and create a new cross-genre experience.

VR today

Of course, virtual reality technologies have advanced quite a bit since these early experiments. Back in the early 90s, VR was awkward and expensive. The headset was very large and heavy and showed basic computer graphic imagery that had picture lag – when you moved your head, the image in the headset would struggle to keep up. You also had to be tethered to a large computer.

Now, with smaller, faster computers and lighter headsets, along with 3D video and photo realistic computer graphics, VR has become affordable and fashionable. So it’s not surprising that the latest digital holographic and augmented reality technologies could also be used as a way of engaging the social aspect of going to see live music.

This has already been attempted with Michael Jackson, who appeared to perform on stage as a hologram after his death – although some audience members found this a little creepy.

More recently, the Icelandic pop icon Bjork produced her own digital works utilising immersive VR. Her private theatrical experience, at London’s Somerset House, provided a more intimate approach for her audience.

So what might we expect from ABBA?

ABBA in 1976. 27779106@N02/flickr, CC BY-SA

They could certainly attempt something similar to the time-bending properties of the Jackson hologram. For example, the band could be seen to be playing with younger versions of themselves in holographic form, forming an eight piece.

Or one could foresee an overlay of augmented reality through a phone app that transforms performers on stage into earlier playback versions of themselves. And even if all the members of the band could not perform together in physical reality, holographic projections of their networked selves could give the simulation of them actually being together on stage.

The “experience” will also reportedly involve the use of artificial intelligence, which could mean that the various technologies used will be able to react quickly to feedback from the audience and between band members (both real and virtual) on stage.

Social experience

But the success of these new generation gigs will largely come down to whether they make full use of social media, the rise of which means that audiences expect to be able to engage with and share their experiences. The more this is enabled, the better for the performer.

Networked VR experiences would allow fans to engage in social media extravaganzas. Performances could be streamed live online through VR or mobile phone headsets (like the Samsung Gear) using 3D photography and immersive spacial sound.

Of course, the enabling of a networked and wired audience that could have access to augmented reality and VR, and have an appreciation of 3D holography would be a massive technological and logistical challenge.

And then there’s the actual sound of the band. The digital subtleties of multiple projections of sound and live music together would need to be assimilated. And noisy, enthusiastic fans, who may well want to sing along, would complicate this further. But in time, such issues will be mastered.

So will future gigs still take place in bars and arenas, but be accompanied by holograms on stage and crowds in VR headsets? Or will the audience wave their iPhones as they do today, but this time gazing, Pokemon Go style, at a supernatural incarnation of their idol on stage along with the real one? Or will all gigs be truly virtual, allowing viewers in headsets at home to match up their favourite band members on a virtual stage?

The reality will likely be some formulation of all of these speculative futures. But whatever form they take, live technological music experiences are sure to be just as exciting as they’ve always been.

The Conversation

Trudy Barber does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.