Tim Cook Talks About Apple's Augmented Reality Ambitions

Tim Cook thinks augmented reality can be "huge." In an exclusive interview with BuzzFeed News, he explains why.

When it comes to virtual and augmented reality, Apple is typically — and inevitably — inscrutable. As several of its biggest competitors, including Google and Microsoft, have shown their hands with augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) strategies, Apple has mostly kept a poker face. But in an exclusive interview with BuzzFeed News Japan during his visit to Tokyo, Cook clarified Apple’s position a bit, suggesting the company is most interested in AR because it can enhance and amplify human experiences.

"There's no substitute for human contact," Cook told BuzzFeed News. "And so you want the technology to encourage that." It’s not the first time Cook has indicated that Apple might favor AR. "We are high on AR for the long run," Cook said during an earnings call this past summer. “I think AR can be huge." Huge, indeed -- one could look to the sudden and explosive success of Pokemon Go to see an immediate real-world example.

Cook's remarks follow a series of behind-the-curtain moves by Apple to bolster its AR acumen. Back in 2013, Apple acquired PrimeSense, the company behind the the motion-capture sensors used in the original Microsoft Kinect gaming hardware. Then in May 2015, it acquired German augmented-reality firm Metaio. A few months later, Apple snapped up Faceshift, the outfit behind the real-time motion capture technology used in Star Wars. This year, it poached VR research scientist Yury Petrov from Facebook's Oculus division and hired Magic Leap's Zeyu Li to be its "senior computer vision algorithm engineer." (Magic Leap is the company that envisions a world in which whales breach on high school basketball courts.) Apple also put on its payroll Doug Bowman, the Director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech; Bowman was a member of the team responsible for designing the Virginia Tech Cube, a VR research space. And then there are the patents: A "head-mounted display," a "peripheral treatment for head-mounted displays."

Meanwhile, Apple has quietly put into place the components of what could prove to be an AR ecosystem. In the iPhone 7 Plus, it has a powerful computer with a Wide Color display and a two-camera system capable of gathering stereoscopic data and generating image depth maps that have far more interesting applications than the bokeh/”Portrait” effect Apple touted at its September event. In Apple Watch, the company has a spatially aware wearable device outfitted with an accelerometer and GPS. In its new AirPod wireless earphones, Apple essentially has a pair of diminutive, spatially aware microcomputers — each one with an Apple W1 wireless chip (the company’s first), two accelerometers, two optical sensors, beam-forming microphones, and an antenna. In iTunes, it has a massive content distribution system. And sources tell BuzzFeed News that the company has recently been taking meetings with immersive content companies like Jaunt.

All that's missing is a broader strategy linking them together. And, increasingly, that's becoming more apparent as well. Certainly in his public statements, Cook seems to be suggesting that Apple sees more promise in delivering smart enhancements to real experiences with AR than creating the fantastical VR ones on which Facebook, Google, and others seem to have their sights trained.

"VR has some interesting applications, but I don't think it's a broad-based technology like AR," Cook explained. "Augmented reality will take some time to get right, but I do think that it's profound. We might ... have a more productive conversation, if both of us have an AR experience standing here, right? And so I think that things like these are better when they're incorporated without becoming a barrier to our talking. ... You want the technology to amplify it, not to be a barrier."

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