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Apple’s Two Futures: VR Is for Desktop, AR Is for Mobile

Apple didn’t just announce the HomePod as a major new product at this week’s WWDC conference; the company also used the event to for the first time share its plans for virtual and augmented reality. The way the company treats both technologies couldn’t be more different, and also tells us a lot about Apple’s future focus.

Apple CEO Tim Cook had frequently talked about VR and AR in the past, giving a thumbs-up to both without revealing if, when and how Apple would enter either market. Back in early 2016, Cook told analysts that VR is not a niche: “It’s really cool and has some interesting applications.” And earlier this year, Cook said during an interview that AR could one day be as big as the iPhone.

All the while, Apple has been quietly hiring and acquiring AR and VR talent, with reports indicating that the company now has several hundred employees working on these technologies.

The first fruits of that labor were on full display at WWDC, where both VR and AR got dedicated on-stage demos during the opening keynote. Apple invited Industrial Light & Magic’s John Knoll on stage to show off a “Star Wars” VR experience running on an Mac –a first for an industry that has thus far almost exclusively relied on PCs to create high-end VR games and experiences.

VR support is being added to Mac hardware with High Sierra, the latest version of Apple’s desktop operating system that’s available to developers now and coming to consumers later this year. The company’s newest iMacs, which were also announced at WWDC, will be able to run VR natively, and developers will be able to buy dedicated hardware for Macbooks to add some external processing power necessary to run high-end VR.

Notable about Apple’s first foray into VR is that it is very limited: Apple isn’t building its own headset, and has instead struck a partnership with HTC to power the company’s Vive hardware. It also partnered with existing software development platform vendors like Unity and Epic to bring their tools to macOS. Apple isn’t even making the external hardware needed to turn Macbooks into VR power horses itself, and is instead reselling a third-party product.

Contrast that with Apple’s foray into AR, which also got a dedicated demo during the WWDC keynote. Peter Jackson’s Wingnut AR studio got to demonstrate an AR game that used an existing table top as the surface for an AR video game, complete with characters jumping off the sides of the table.

The company also showed off simple AR filters that make use of an iPhone’s or iPad’s camera to add virtual objects to the environment — something that’s very similar to Facebook’s use of filters and Snapchat’s “world lenses.”

In fact, Apple’s approach to AR very much mimics the way Facebook approaches the space. Instead of building a dedicated AR device like Microsoft HoloLens, both companies use existing mobile devices for simple AR applications. The advantage is that this will allow both companies to launch and test AR technology much sooner.

Apple’s AR software is capable of running on any iPhone or iPad that at least has an A9 processor on board. “Hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads are going to be be capable of AR,” said Apple SVP of software engineering Craig Federighi Monday. And Apple is giving developers tools to AR-enable their apps on all of these devices.

Compared to that, VR has a much smaller footprint at Apple: During its most recent quarter, Apple sold close to 60 million iPhones and iPads, but only 4 million Macs.

To be clear, Apple may well have a VR headset in its labs, just as the company is likely exploring AR glasses as well. And like many in the industry, it is likely also looking into fusing both technologies for future mixed-reality products. But by relegating VR to the desktop, Apple is clearly signaling that AR is its first priority.

Apple doesn’t want to give up on VR, especially as it is looking to sell high-end PCs like the iMac Pro to industry professionals. But for consumers, it is going to first and foremost focus on augmented reality, and betting on the iPhone and iPad as a means to get to the masses.

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