Hi everyone, it’s Mark. Earlier this week at the annual Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced iOS 15, the latest version of the operating system powering the iPhone.
It adds new features like a revamped notifications system, improvements to FaceTime, a new version of the Safari web browser and a smarter Photos app. These updates will keep users glued to their iPhones, keep developers building apps for Apple’s platforms and help sell this fall’s suite of new devices.
But iOS 15 also appears to be doing something more. Besides rolling out the typical iOS update, the company may be laying the technical foundation for its next big group of devices: virtual and augmented reality headsets.
Here’s a look at the features included in iOS 15 that could also be essential to Apple’s upcoming headsets, including a mixed AR and VR device for a likely launch in 2022, and the AR glasses planned for a few years after that.
- Updates to FaceTime: The revamped FaceTime of iOS 15 sets up what could eventually be Zoom-like experiences on a headset. Apple has added a new grid view, improved audio and video quality, and the ability to share someone else’s display with SharePlay. (Imagine using an Apple headset to game or watch movies with someone—the technology is now there.) Just as significant: Apple has added Spatial Audio into FaceTime, which will more precisely position the location of sounds users hear. As Bloomberg has reported before, a core use of Apple’s first planned AR and VR product will be communicating with people.
- Maps: Apple’s iOS 15 adds AR-enabled turn-by-turn walking directions. When the company ultimately releases a pair of AR-only glasses—a release said to be slated for later this decade—the ability to beam mapping directions onto actual streets is likely to be a key feature.
- Improved Siri and voice input: Siri and voice control could be a critical way of interacting with Apple’s future headsets, and iOS 15 adds new technologies that will make that simpler. For example, voice search is now an input method for the Safari web browser, allowing people to find information online by speaking. Siri also now adds on-device processing. That means it doesn’t need to upload and analyze your commands online, which will make responses much quicker.
- Live text: iOS 15 will be able to parse out text or numbers from photos. The way this could work with an AR device: You see a phone number on a billboard or on a business card, and you’re able to call it without ever using a number pad.
- Visual lookup: Apple’s new operating system can now do a better job of seeing objects, recognizing them, and looking them up online. That’s a feature that has obvious applications for an AR device.
Beyond the consumer-facing technology, Apple also introduced new features for developers that could eventually help the company roll out apps to a headset:
- Object capture: Apple launched a new feature for developers that lets them create AR objects by taking several pictures of a physical item with an Apple device or standalone camera. That will speed up the time it takes to create virtual content.
- Gaming updates: Apple’s gaming technologies got an upgrade, potentially important for making video games that are playable on a headset.
- Spatial Audio: The company has opened up its Spatial Audio technology to third-party developers—building out what is, again, a key feature for any AR or VR experience.
This year’s release wouldn’t be the first time Apple has built technologies into the iPhone to support its next big hardware launch. In iOS 8 in 2014, Apple added the Health app, new quick messaging and typing features, and the ability to start doing something on one device then continue that task on another. At the time, those features all had the clear capability to support a future Apple Watch launch in 2015, which they did. It appears the company is taking the same approach this time around.
If all goes to plan, Apple could soon be talking up development tools, apps and key technologies for its first headset. Stay tuned for next year’s WWDC. —Mark Gurman
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