Spaces is one more tile in Apple’s incomprehensibly large AR/VR mosaic

Apple’s master plan to make mixed reality mainstream grows with new corporate acqusitions every month, even if the individual pieces don’t make sense. …

“Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time,” the company’s official acquisition confirmation statement says, “and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” If you follow Apple, you’ve seen these words multiple times before — pretty much any time it buys a company that doesn’t have an existing customer base to reassure. That now happens once or twice a month, often under the radar until someone discovers or gets tipped off to an ambiguous “headed in a new direction” final post on a company’s web site.

Over the last day, Apple offered that vague confirmation for a VR startup called Spaces, which you might not have heard of until now. We covered their launch in 2016, funding in 2017, opening of a location-based VR center in 2018, and pandemic pivot to VR Zoom meetings earlier this year. Along the way, Spaces’ most noteworthy offering was arguably a four-person, room-scale VR experience based on the film Terminator: Salvation, which debuted in Orange County, California before rolling out with Sega in Shibuya, Japan. But Apple’s interest is likely something different.

A demonstration of Spaces’ latest tech shows a cartoony teacher offering whiteboard presentations with accompanying lip and body synchronization — a gentle evolution of existing VR avatar technology. You could easily imagine the 3D model replaced with one of Apple’s current Memoji avatars, enabling an iPad- or iPhone-toting teacher to offer a presentation to a virtual class over Zoom. That’s basically the VR video conferencing solution Spaces was offering prior to the acquisition, minus the Apple elements, and the platform-agnostic company promised compatibility with practically every major VR headset and video sharing app around.

I’m not going to tell you that Apple’s VR and AR acquisitions have become too numerous to count, but the picture they paint is anything but narrowly focused. Every little company Apple buys feels like another tile in a massive mosaic, contributing its own color and texture to a picture that’s bigger than many people have realized. If one had the sense two years ago that Apple was just making AR glasses, now it appears to be developing both AR and VR hardware — including key components such as displays. Similarly, if you thought it was mostly about hardware, nope, it’s filing software patents and buying a lot of software companies. And services companies.

This won’t surprise anyone who knows that Apple’s core strength is its ability to integrate hardware, software, and services. But it does mean that the company’s ambitions for mixed reality go far beyond just dropping a pair of glasses in the marketplace and seeing how they perform on their own. It’s building the initial suite of AR/VR applications that will enable the hardware to succeed in its first or second generation, perhaps before there’s a robust “Reality App Store” with third-party apps. Spaces could be the key to Apple’s “Keynote VR” — or to its ambitions for collaborative multi-person experiences in rooms, like the Terminator experience.

Contrast Apple’s approach with what we’ve seen with a couple of consumer VR and AR companies, Oculus and Nreal. Both announced hardware and largely let third-party developers loose to create cool games or useful apps to use their technology. Yet both (and other XR hardware makers) have realized that they, too, need to develop compelling apps to move their platforms forward. Some of the biggest current and upcoming Oculus titles have been either backed or developed by Facebook. Nreal is similarly collaborating with mobile operators to create game-changing AR apps. Neither waited until software and services were mature to launch hardware, decisions that (thankfully) gave early adopters tastes of our mixed reality future.

It’s been a comparatively long walk towards Apple’s product, paved with small public steps forward, odd leaks, contradictory reports, and the occasional bad decision. Many of these moves don’t have obvious individual value to the Apple we know today. But collectively, they’re either going to come together for a massive iPhone-caliber launch, or an ever-growing collection of small developments like the Apple Watch. The reported 2022 release might be getting closer every day, but if these acquisitions keep piling up, expectations for what’s about to arrive should be sky high ahead of the reveal. Like the iPhone and Apple Watch, I don’t question whether the finished offering have a huge impact, but rather how quickly the world will change as a result.

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