Facebook managers started the term hype “metaverse” in 2021. That same year, Facebook even changed around the tech concept. But for mixed-reality technology, it’s still early innings, and some of the companies that will play a big part in shaping our virtual experiences haven’t even entered the playing field yet. Chief among them is Apple, which I believe is best placed to introduce virtual spaces and experiences to mainstream users. It is an open secret that Apple is now working on an AR glasses product and as the work progresses more details (rumors) have emerged.
The go-to resources on Apple mixed reality hardware, BloombergMark Gurman and analyst Ming-Chi Kuo both predict that Apple’s first AR/VR headset – a high-end device that could cost as much as $3,000 – will be announced as soon as possible. early next year. Gurman thinks Apple is already working hard on a lighter, cheaper “glasses” design that will be released later. The two believe Apple is also building a mixed-reality device that can do both AR and VR experiences (that is, experiences that magnify the real world for the user, as well as completely virtual experiences that exclude the real world).
When Apple’s mixed-reality game arrives, there’s a good chance — based on the company’s own history — that the marketing heads in Cupertino will eschew the term “metaverse” altogether. Should that happen, the term could fall by the wayside, just like ‘information highway’ or ‘videophone’ for it.
Everything is branded
Apple likes to brand its own things. It lists each software or hardware product and many of the individual features in it. It does not depend on already known terms. For example, the iPhone’s facial recognition technology wasn’t called facial recognition; it was called “Face ID.” The system of cameras and sensors that made Face ID possible was called “TrueDepth”. Apple Music’s surround-sound music mixes use Dolby Atmos technology by default, but in Apple World, the product is called Spatial Audio.
Apple also mentions the chips it designs to power its devices. Gurman recently reported that Apple has trademark the term “Reality Processor,” which may be the name of one of the chips in the upcoming Apple AR product. The company also trademarked “Reality One” and “Reality Pro”, which could be the names of Apple’s AR glasses.
It’s not likely that Apple will use the metaverse term just because it’s already in the public domain. It’s more likely to adopt its own term for virtual spaces, or not use a term for it at all.
A flawed term
The problems with “metaverse” go beyond branding. The word just doesn’t describe the kind of mixed reality experiences Apple is probably trying to create.
The term ‘metaverse’ comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, which described a digital alternate reality in which users could escape from a dystopian real world. We see similar “alternative” worlds in movies like Tron and Ready Player One. The person experiencing these worlds usually does so using a VR-type device that completely covers their eyes and blocks out the real world. The metaverse experiences we’ve seen from Meta so far are clunky, cartoonish, and similarly enclosed, seen in the limited space of VR goggles.
That’s not what Apple is interested in at all. A metaverse experience that shuts down or tries to replace the real world goes against everything Apple has said about what personal technology should do. By all indications, Apple is much more interested in creating an open experience that includes features from the real world. That’s why Apple has shown a lot of interest in AR and very little interest in VR. Apple CEO Tim Cook called AR one of “very few in-depth technologies.”
In spatial computing with AR glasses, the user interface becomes the entire visible world to the user, and the lenses in the glasses display digital content within and around objects in the real world. The glasses may include a landmark above a statue that the user is looking at. The operating system of such a device would follow the same logic. It would likely display icons and other information contextually with real-world objects. It would be dynamic, that is, elements of the operating system would appear in the right places in the user’s view and then disappear. Apple is thinking along these lines: At the beginning of June, the company trademark (again, through a proxy) the term ‘realityOS’ in reference to ‘portable computer hardware’.
Think about privacy
Apple would also have a big privacy incentive to reject the term “metaverse.” Apple and Meta probably put the most R&D money into mixed reality projects and most engineers worked on them. Apple naturally wants to differentiate its AR experiences from Meta’s AR experiences as much as possible.
It will certainly want to differentiate itself from Meta in its approach to privacy. Mixed reality glasses and virtual spaces can expose users to data collection and monitoring in ways never seen before in the smartphone age. Mixed reality glasses typically contain many more cameras, microphones, and sensors, and their operating systems collect more data about your movements (even your eye movements) than smartphones. The operating system will likely use artificial intelligence to understand all of the sensory data it generates.
Apple has gone to great lengths to preserve its users’ data privacy (and talk about it a lot); all those problems can pay off when mainstream consumers start considering AR glasses, and start thinking about the myriad of ways the devices can be used to keep an eye on them. If they choose between Meta’s and Apple’s glasses, they can understandably pick the ones from the tech company with a proven track record of protecting privacy.
I suspect this is related to Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to change his company’s name from Facebook to Meta. AR glasses are his best chance to finally own and manage the hardware (and ecosystem) used for social experiences, rather than relying on Apple’s iPhone and App Store. He wants Meta AR glasses to succeed, bad. He also knows that potential buyers will be concerned about privacy. Perhaps he wanted to create some distance between his “metaverse” and the Facebook brand, which had become synonymous with surveillance capitalism, widespread misinformation and ongoing scandal.
Large Image: Given the technical challenges and privacy implications of mixed reality goggles and virtual spaces, I think the technology will catch on slowly. It will remain a niche product/service for years to come. I agree with Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney when he says that in the beginning, the big tech companies involved in the space will be exploiting their own walled virtual spaces for their own experiences and those of their partners. Epics for example Fortnite is a freestanding virtual performance space that also hosts guest appearances from bands (Travis Scott) and brands (Ferrari). Apple’s virtual space may contain experiences created by its ARKit developer partners. As virtual spaces and spatial computing mature, the walls between those smaller spaces can fall, creating a much larger public virtual space in which users can navigate from one destination to another using a single avatar/identity.
A lot needs to happen before we get to something like this. And when we get there, it will probably look and behave very differently than we can imagine today. We will use very different language to describe it. By then, I think, the term “metaverse” will be just a footnote in a history book.