Augmented reality and virtual reality are promising technologies, and many people are trying to figure out how, and when, to make money from them. When Google created its original smart glasses, Google Glass, developers snapped up early units. Apple didn't do the same, but now is reportedly looking at developing its own smart glasses. It won't be the next killer product the company needs to build beyond the iPhone. Instead, this is Apple's road into the future.
Given technical limitations, privacy concerns, the product price tag, and the utter geekiness of wearing the device, Google Glass didn't take off. Third-party developers didn't make any money directly. And yet, Google still saw many benefits from the experiment. The company learned a lot and now has cheap Google Goggles and Tango, the latter being an augmented reality system that can fit virtual objects atop the real world.
Blurring the lines between physical and virtual is an important technology for the future. Big corporations already use it for training, providing information to workers in the middle of their jobs, helping designers visualize ideas, and marketing. Pokémon Go is an example of how big a popular hit AR can be. Uses for consumers go much further, like Ikea's smartphone app that lets people get a virtual preview of how furniture or appliances might look in their homes.
Still, when you hear Apple is exploring the manufacture of smart glasses, as Bloomberg reported, the move isn't a short-term plan to offset iPhone sales that have slowed more than analysts and investors wanted to hear. If you thought the Apple Watch, which has sold millions of units, was still basically a curiosity in comparison to the flagship smartphone, smart glasses would be even more marginal.
At least, it would be marginal now. Possibly somewhat less so in 2018, when the first units might conceivably come off the assembly line. But people often forget how long Apple will wait and experiment in a market.
There were plenty of music players before the iPod. Apple waited, watched the mistakes others made, and then combined a commercially available electronics reference design with really smart industrial and software innovation to deliver something consumers wanted. The popularity was probably far more than even Steve Jobs could have expected.
There were plenty of mobile phones before the iPhone. Again, Apple looked for the mistakes, incorporated existing and recent technology that hadn't been applied, like a touch interface, and came up with a winner. And, again, the company likely couldn't have predicted the wild success.
Sometimes Apple develops ideas over long periods of time, like Apple TV. It's hardly been a roaring success, at least compared to what a hot product for Apple can be. But the company keeps working on the concept and, more importantly, working on the relationships with studios and networks to get access to programming the way they need to make the idea successful.
Augmented reality, virtual reality, and wearable computing are all in their infancy. Apple Watch was a product too early with too many problems. But the company has stumbled plenty of times in the past, and a watch doesn't preclude the development of other types of wearables, especially ones that might incorporate augmented reality.
Apple has learned from its watch, just as Google learned from Glass. AR and VR will become necessary platforms in the future, and smart companies don't plan only for next quarter. Even if the Bloomberg report is wrong and Apple is not planning on releasing a product in the next two years, it most certainly has to be considering the possibility. The people who run Apple aren't dumb enough to write off the whole field.