Elgan on Tech

Apple's smart glasses will disappoint

The reaction to Apple's long-awaited glasses platform will be something like this: ‘Wait, that's it?’

apple glass fpt
Jon Prosser/Front Page Tech

Elgan on Tech

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Everyone is talking about Apple's smart glasses this week.

Much of the chatter is contradictory, surprising and exciting. So let me clarify what's going on and give you some context and perspective so you can plan accordingly.

The Kuo predictions

Longtime Apple prognosticator with a good track record, Ming-Chi Kuo, says Apple Glasses will launch in 2022 at the earliest.

The Gurman predictions

Bloomberg reporter Mark Gurman, who also has a great track record of getting advanced information about Apple products, says Apple is working on two face-based gadgets. One that looks like bulky VR glasses aiming for a 2022 release and another, which is pure AR and looks like regular eyeglasses is shooting for 2023.

Both these predictions focus on timing, which is especially difficult right now because of the unpredictable impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Into this uncertainty comes some very detailed predictions from a single source.

The Prosser predictions

A YouTuber named Jon Prosser got massive press this week for claiming to have inside information on Apple's smart glasses, based on what he claims is a first-hand look at the glasses. He talked about the branding and price, the functionality and both the announce and ship dates.

Specifically, he claimed, the device will be called Apple Glass. It will cost $499. It will have no camera. Data will be processed on a phone, not the glasses. It will have a LiDAR Scanner on the right side and holographic projection into both eyes. It will be compatible with prescription lenses. And it will look more or less like regular glasses. Prosser says Apple will announce this product by the end of March next year, and ship it by the end of March 2022.

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You should know that this information is (charitably speaking) not reliable. (Mark Gurman called it "pure fiction".) Prosser is either being deliberately misleading, or is honest but confused. Either way, his "leaks" cannot be taken as fact.  

The problem is not that his predictions are disagreeable. It's that the categories of information are literally unknowable.

For example, Apple itself does not "know" the announcement date, the ship date or the price. Instead, what they may have are targets, goals or objectives. You manage product development teams by giving them aggressive targets to aim for.

The flimsiest data point in Prosser's "leak" is the price. There is zero chance that Apple has set a price for a product launching in two years. For starters, the economy could see runaway inflation between now and then. Today, Apple has no solid idea of how much $499 will be worth in 2022 or how much in 2022 dollars manufacturing will cost. These are unknowns beyond Apple's control. And there's no reason for Apple to actually set a price this far out.

One of the most colorful and least-likely "leaks" by Prosser involves his claim that Apple is making special-edition "Steve Jobs" style smart glasses as well. Jobs famously wore round, wire-thin frames. Sounds to me like Prosser is being played.

Other elements of Prosser's "leak" are more likely, but can be divined from reason. For example: Of course, the glasses won't have a camera for taking pictures, the privacy-invading feature that caused scorn and ridicule for Google Glass.

Apple's LiDAR system naturally will be built into smart glasses at some point. All Apple's AR components, software designs and software development tools are dress rehearsals for the main AR event, which is the future Apple smart glasses and goggles.

What we don't know is whether Apple's LiDAR will be built into the first version of Apple's all-day AR glasses. It seems more likely that they'll instead opt for a beacon system based on the U1 chip, an ultra-wideband (UWB) positioning system which I detailed here. This approach would not give Apple glasses an instant 3D map of interior spaces so that virtual objects could interact with the environment, as Hololens is designed to do. Instead, it could detect the location and interact with tagged objects and other Apple devices. People, for example, could be identified by their phones. In fact, iPhones today use the U1 chip to identify the location of people for prioritizing AirDrop targets. You could use your Apple glasses to find your keys, wallet and dog -- but not watch virtual 3D characters hide behind the couch.

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My speculation about the use of a UI chip in the first versions of the Apple smart glasses (instead of LiDAR) is made a little more plausible by Apple's recently granted patent for a smart ring that exists to function as an in-the-air gesture pointing device. This would not be necessary for a LiDAR-based in-the-air gesture system, but it would be handy (see what I did there?) for a U1-based system. The ring would simply function as a beacon to tell the glasses where your hand is (something I first speculated about in my email newsletter).

The bottom line is that I don't doubt that Prosser saw something or talked to someone who saw something. But if he saw a prototype, that tells him less than he claims it does. At this moment, there are almost certainly many Apple smart glasses prototypes in existence. Some are speculative. Some are attempts to try the technologies out for a first-generation product -- others are working on follow-on versions. Some are created to help design the manufacturing process. Others are helping the OS team build the software that runs it. Some are testing materials. Others are built to run dress rehearsals on a prescription lens and fitting process.

What we do know is that if some YouTuber somehow saw one of these prototypes, he can't accurately surmise what Apple will ship -- let alone when Apple will ship it or how Apple will price it.)

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(Oh, and if the name turns out to be "Apple Glass," it will be the first time in Apple's history where Apple copied Google branding exactly. So I don't buy this part, either. Apple leaders need to share prototypes with engineers and designers, but they don't have to share branding this early.)

How to think about Apple's smart glasses

People tend to think about smart glasses as mind-blowing science fiction. Here's a better way to think about it: It's an Apple Watch and a pair of AirPods Pro for your face.

In the long term -- the very long term, by which I mean 10 years or more -- smart glasses will probably replace smartphones as our main, central mobile computing device. But in the short term, smart glasses will simply make smartphones more convenient. Just like smart watches.

It's a no-brainer that Apple smart glasses will show you notifications and enable you to read and reply to messages. Just like the Apple Watch.

Also like the Apple Watch, there are big bucks to be made with special edition smart glasses. Like the watches, it's a fashion play, in addition to a technology play. Premium frames will come at premium prices. And Apple loves this kind of business.

The main revolution in usability is one that almost nobody is talking about: audio. Apple wants you using Siri, and Apple's smart glasses are likely to be the "killer app" for Siri. It's likely that Apple's smart glasses will use the same double-tap gesture to conjure Siri, then speak. If Siri has an audio answer, it will whisper this in your ear, either with focused, directed speakers built into the "temples" (the part of eyeglasses that connect the frames to your ears), plus possibly bone conduction as well. If the Siri result is visual, then Siri will say "here's some information," then show you the result on your glasses.

Not exactly ‘The Matrix,’ but handy

Smart glasses have an advantage over AirPods, which is that you can literally wear them all day without discomfort. There's more space for batteries, too.

Apple could have shipped its very first Apple Watch with a camera, GPS and a SIM card built in. Instead, it opted for something more minimal and solid

Apple could have shipped its first wireless AirPods with advanced, app-based controls for muting specific sounds and giving wearers super hearing. Instead, Apple opted for basic functionality of audio listening, basic controls and Siri integration.

And so we can expect something similar with smart glasses. They'll have advanced technology but not perform advanced tasks. Apple's first consumer smart glasses will probably do basic tasks very well.

My prediction for Apple's smart glasses

The public and the press will be disappointed in Apple's smart glasses. By the time they ship, many other products will be on the market. And Apple's will probably do a small number of things very well, but not do everything other products can do.

And then the evolution will begin, and in a few years, Apple's AR glasses will be brilliant. That's what happened with the Apple Watch. That's what happened with AirPods. And that's what is likely with smart glasses.