Apple starts connecting the dots for its next big thing

Nearly 15 years after the iPhone sparked the smartphone revolution, Apple is gathering the parts for what it hopes will become its next business-changing device: a headset that blends the digital world with the real thing.

The company has enlisted Hollywood directors such as Jon Favreau to develop video content for a headset expected to be released next year, according to three people familiar with that work. Favreau, an executive producer of “Prehistoric Planet” on Apple TV+, is working to bring that show’s dinosaurs to life on the headset, which looks like ski goggles and aims to provide virtual and augmented reality experiences, these folks said. . †

Separately, Apple plans to unveil software tools at its annual developer conference next Monday that will allow apps to add new camera and voice functionality, laying the groundwork for a hands-free interface that customers can eventually use on the headset, according to two people who are familiar with the project and the documents reviewed by The New York Times.

An Apple spokesperson, Trudy Muller, declined to comment on future projects. A spokesman for Favreau was unable to comment.

The planned headset will push Apple into an emerging competition to define the future of mixed reality. Meta, the parent company of Microsoft, Google and Facebook, is in various stages of developing software and hardware to create environments where 3D digital images and the physical world coexist.

Last year, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, dropped Facebook as the name of his company and committed to building a concept known as the metaverse, where the online, virtual and real worlds merge into a new universe. He and others believe it could become the next computer wave, succeeding the smartphone era dominated by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android software, just as those platforms followed the decades of Windows and Macintosh.

“This is the next frontier,” said Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst at Creative Strategies, a technology research firm. “For Apple, this is about a new computing experience and an opportunity to engage consumers with a device and new experiences that build on what they’ve done with content.”

Mixed reality work is expected to be overshadowed at Apple’s conference keynote Monday, which will be largely devoted to the company’s existing software systems. Apple may also announce a redesigned MacBook Air with slimmer bezels around the display than current models and updated processors, analysts said.

Apple’s development of virtual reality content and software tools is central to creating experiences that give the future headset its purpose. The last major new product, the Apple Watch, launched with about 3,000 apps, but struggled to get off the ground as tech reviewers said few of those apps were useful. Similar shortcomings have dogged Meta’s Quest virtual reality headset, which surpassed 10 million sales last year as many consider it a gaming device.

From its original Macintosh to its iPad, Apple has pursued products that attract a wide variety of potential customers and have a variety of uses. It sold an estimated 240 million iPhones last year, accounting for about half of its total revenue of $366 billion. For the headset to be worthwhile, analysts said, it must have utilities that transcend the video game niche.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been talking about the potential of augmented reality for years. In 2016, he told investors that the company invested heavily in it and viewed it as a “great commercial opportunity.” Around that time, many employees on Apple’s campus read “Ready Player One,” a futuristic novel about virtual reality, and talked about the possibilities of creating Apple’s own mixed-reality world.

Apple hired an engineer from Dolby Technologies, Mike Rockwell, and assigned him to lead the effort. His early efforts to create an augmented-reality product were hampered by weak computing power, two people familiar with the project said. Continued challenges with its battery power have forced Apple to delay its release until next year, those folks said.

The augmented reality initiative has caused division within Apple. At least two members of the industrial design team said they had left the company, in part because of concerns about developing a product that could change the way people interact with each other. Such sensitivities have increased within the company due to increasing public concern about children’s screen time.

With Rockwell at the helm, the product would be one of the first to come from Apple under the leadership of its engineering team in place of co-founder Steve Jobs, who died in 2011, and his former design chief, Jony Ive, who left the company. . company in 2019. The Apple Watch project was led by Ive and his designers, who determined how it looked, worked and was marketed.

Favreau’s programming shows how Apple tries to differentiate its product from Meta’s. It also illustrates how the company is leveraging the relationships it has built in Hollywood since the launch of Apple TV+ in 2019.

“A great headset can give you a better experience than an 80-inch TV,” said Matt Miesnieks, CEO of LivingCities.xyz, a startup working on metaverse technology.

Apple’s software tools extend a multi-year push to encourage developers to build augmented reality apps. The company kicked off that effort in 2017 with ARKit, which allowed developers to use the iPhone’s camera and motion sensors to place digital objects in the real world and let people interact with them.

According to a Creative Strategies survey of more than 500 developers, about 70% of Apple developers said they didn’t use that tool.

A toolkit that Apple is expected to introduce at the conference will provide software developers with new opportunities to activate shortcuts in their apps using Siri and QR codes, interactions that will be used in future headsets, said a person familiar with it. project.

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