5G and Beyond

Apple's AR Headset Could Do for 5G What iPhone Did for 4G

Rumors continue to swirl about an AR headset from Apple. If the company successfully builds some kind of augmented reality product -- and that's a big if -- it could provide the kind of boost to 5G networks that Apple's original iPhone did for 4G.

Reports of a possible Apple AR headset first came to light in 2017, but gained traction this week thanks to reports of hints about such a product in the code of the company's latest version of iOS. Whether Apple actually releases such a product (headset? spectacles? goggles? glasses?) is unclear at best.

That said, 5G-powered Apple glasses, done right, could create the kind of perfect storm of innovation, buzz and consumer demand that Apple's iPhone created roughly a decade ago. After all, Apple is one of the few companies with the design and marketing clout to turn such a product into a mass-market catalyst. And augmented reality headsets would most likely require 5G in order to display information in real-time as a user looks around -- 4G probably wouldn't cut it.

Of course, there are many, many puzzle pieces that would need to fall in place first before al this could happen. Meaning, it won't happen next year, and probably not the year after.

But there are clear parallels between Apple's rumored interest in AR headsets and its first foray into smartphones.

First, Apple's initial iPhone didn't support 4G. It didn't even support 3G (it used EDGE). Nor did it initially support third-party apps. But over the years, as the product matured, it managed to move from high-end gadget oddity to cultural phenomena -- and that forced mobile network operators to invest heavily into 4G to meet demand.

Only in recent years has it become apparent that the iPhone and other touchscreen smartphones will be most Americans' primary -- and in some cases only -- doorway into the digital world. And only in recent years have operators' 4G networks managed to catch up with demand in order to support unlimited data service plans.

An AR headset from Apple could follow a similar trajectory. If it were released in the next few years, the gadget would undoubtedly suffer from missing features, spotty 5G coverage, sluggish speeds and anemic support among developers. But if it takes off, it could well change the way we interact with the Internet. It's not hard to imagine maps, social media data, Wiki-style information, games and videos seamlessly sliding into our field of view as they're needed, hovering over real-world objects in our line of sight, and then sliding away when we've moved on.

5G operators would undoubtedly be happy to sell connections for such services.

To be clear, Apple isn't the only company eyeing head-mounted AR technologies. Magic Leap and Google Glass are just two examples of products already in this area. But Apple also wasn't the only company playing in the market for touchscreen smartphones a decade ago. Indeed, Apple's iPhone remains dwarfed by the Android ecosystem.

My point isn't that Apple is the only company that can take an AR headset mainstream. It's that 5G glasses from a global trend-setter like Apple could create the kind of cultural zeitgeist that the original iPhone did, with rock-concert like unveilings and shoppers waiting in line for days.

And that's the kind of thing that could move 5G from an interesting technological peculiarity -- mainly destined for niche applications in locations like stadiums and manufacturing facilities -- and into a nationwide necessity.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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