The iPhone changed technology in 2007, but it was the App Store that changed our lives a year later. It brought us Yelp to pick a restaurant, Instagram to share our dinner, and Uber to order the car home.
Next week, Apple will announce the next iPhone, and it promises to have the biggest software upgrade we’ve seen since the original App Store launched: augmented reality, enabled by a development software inside iOS 11 called ARKit. While the new iPhone will feature useful upgrades like better cameras, ARKit is what could take augmented reality mainstream. That’s because there are over 700 million iPhones in the wild. In a single OS update, Apple will put a wave of new AR apps in millions of hands.
AR is a chance for Apple to change how we use our phones again, on the scale of the App Store. Yet despite the excitement of analysts, there are some serious design problems Apple needs to solve to succeed–and they may be too large for the beloved iPhone to bear.
There May Never Be A Killer AR App
Today, the most successful AR app is Pokémon Go. It began as a viral phenomenon, using AR to drive millions of people into underutilized public spaces and down dark alleys in the middle of the night. Long after the news headlines died down, it remains one of the most popular games in the world, with 65 million monthly active users. The app is immensely successful, and, yet, it doesn’t leverage AR as an essential tool in everyday life. Flicking a pokéball, while entertaining, is not as indispensable as getting directions with Maps or hailing a car with Uber. It’s a huge app, but it’s not a killer app.
Gaming is a highly experimental arm of the app market, after all. We are willing to suspend our needs for conventions when it comes to having fun with a video game.
The question is, will Apple’s ARKit add meaningful utility to our lives the way apps did? Will I use ARKit mindlessly while riding the subway to work, or while eating out at a restaurant, or while booking travel? Will half a billion iPhones with AR capabilities truly affect transportation, or commerce, or fashion, or medical care, or any of those trillion-plus dollar industries that Apple, along with its partners and peers, want to tap? That’s far harder to imagine than an overzealous nerd playing AR Super Mario Bros ruining your next picnic. AR may remain primarily an entertainment technology, used in games and creativity-driven apps.
The Ergonomic Problem
The greatest limitation to AR on the iPhone is simply that it’s still a phone. Facebook has called AR on mobile phones a gateway to inevitable glasses on your face, positioning the technology as part of a broader spectrum of plugging in. It’s a feasible argument, and perhaps Apple feels the same way and ARKit is just a gateway to an iPhone that lives inside our retinas. But for now, the impact AR can make is limited to what people are willing to do while holding a four-inch rectangle in front of their noses.
For some AR applications, the ergonomics of holding an iPhone in front of your face won’t seem so limiting. An Ikea iPhone app that places furniture in the privacy of my home? Sign me up. Or apps will only use AR selectively, like Snapchat, whose constantly evolving AR selfie lenses range from rainbow puke to dancing hot dogs and represent countless hours of engagement every month for its 173 million daily users.
But for others, particularly apps that require prolonged engagement in public, the inconvenience could be fatal. It’s hard to imagine a dad walking through a grocery store, wrangling two toddlers, while scanning the shelves for holographic coupons. It’s hard to picture a Lyft driver, iPhone stuck to their windshield, discerning turn-by-turn directions through the iPhone screen displaying a video feed of the street. It’s hard to fathom that, walking through a room at some networking event, I might casually pan my phone to reveal the green arrow pointing out the LinkedIn influencer in the crowd.
None of these long-imagined AR utilities make practical sense as user interfaces on the iPhone. The interface that makes the most sense on an iPhone is the one we already have: Menus and buttons that we swipe and tap. Put Tinder into a typical iPhone app, and it’s a harmless, fun, sometimes sexy way to date. Add an AR component, and the casual peruser becomes a creepy stalker. A man walks up to you in a bar. His phone is pointed at your face. He then rattles off your name and interests from the screen. Who’s up for some necking?
We’re all excited about AR on the iPhone because it’s such a tantalizing tease of what feels almost possible, combining the serenity of the analog world with the limitlessness of the digital one. But the iPhone already brought the wonders of the internet into our real world, in 2008, in a way that made perfect sense. And an augmented reality-powered iPhone, for all the spectacularly entertaining video overlay tricks it may enable, can never outshine that fundamental achievement of its predecessor: It just worked.
So even if the iPhone’s next wave of AR apps make many millions of dollars, it’s hard to imagine them changing the way we live like the first wave of iPhone apps. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have a whole lot of fun playing with them anyway.