Bad Apple May Sour Early Augmented Reality...

Earlier this year, a group of developers, startups, academics, and others published an open letter to Apple about opening up the IPhone SDK and releasing public APIs to access the live video stream from the camera to enable augmented reality applications. Ironically, Apple filed for a patent the next day for mobile augmented reality which is rather broad and all-encompassing. Apple later announced that it would indeed release new functions in the next version of the SDK, which spurred a flurry of press excitement about hordes of new AR applications that would suddenly appear in September.

The reality though, was that while some functionality was opened, which has made it easy to create “distance” or “directory” AR applications (requiring GPS, accelerometer, compass, and a screen overlay), it did not address the needs outlined in the open letter. Rather, it ignored them completely.

Augmented reality applications that require live video from the camera, like marker based AR that was popular through the first half of 2009 (and still a very viable method), as well as most of the super cool conceptual videos and demos out there (head over to Games Alfresco for examples), are completely locked out. Not only would these applications be immediately banned and not approved for distribution in the app store, the functions and APIs necessary to access the camera are hidden, undocumented, private, and a real pain in the ass to try to work around…even if just to create a working proof of concept for one developer in a garage somewhere.

If this was a matter on the global scale, it wouldn’t be a big deal. The IPhone has barely made a dent in the worldwide market. However, because it is a media darling here in North America, ensorcelling venture capitalists, and resonating amongst the faithful Apple drones, it is nearly impossible for a young augmented reality developer or small startup to get any significant traction trying to raise funds if they are not focusing on the IPhone. This is causing a problem.

Not only has Apple become the very thing they railed against in 1984…a controlling and domineering “big brother” who will not tolerate dissent, true creativity, or openness, but they have a constricting snake’s chokehold on the market. Not only do the execs live in an Ivory Tower, but they are forcing the rest of us to do the same, surrounded by very high walled gardens and orchards with the prettiest apples you have ever seen. However, we are forbidden from tasting that fruit, or making apple pie, or even trying to make some apple cider. If we get too close, the snakes appear with all of their rules and requirements, effectively trapping us. And then we notice how shiny the apples are again, and forget what we were complaining about.

One of two things needs to happen. Either Apple needs to quit screwing us around and make the APIs public so we can get back to the business of innovating and building a new industry, or the respective communities of developers and venture capitalists need to abandon Apple entirely. There are good alternatives out there that may not be as shiny, but are certainly as powerful and definitely more open for us to work with.

I hate to say it, but the only reason my team is bothering to waste time with the IPhone right now is because that is what people think is the validating platform for the whole AR industry. We would be much farther along and creating some mind-blowing AR if we weren’t fending off sour apples, bad worms, and rotten smiles.

You know, there is an opportunity here for someone to create a better hardware platform and completely leapfrog Apple. Mobile AR has a lot of potential and while the IPhone is shiny now, it is certainly not the ultimate mobile device, it is a shadow of what is to come. If Apple stays dominant and keeps things closed, all the cool stuff will be delayed…maybe for years. But if they open things up, or someone puts out a more robust hardware platform (that is competitive on the sexy level) and combines that with something more open and developer friendly, then you will see the industry catch on fire, accelerate, and create some wild experiences and applications. The future doesn’t need to be science fiction any more.

Android is a good candidate here to take the lead and cut Apple off at the knees, but I also wonder what the hell Nokia is doing right now. Their conceptual AR videos are kinda cool, but not always well received? Personally, I think Nokia could be a dark horse that comes out of the gate with something unexpected (they certainly have a large warchest of cash to work with) but they may be hampered by their own internal culture and politics to do something radical (and risky) to knock Apple off the cart.

I dunno. Something needs to change. As consumers we are being cheated out of really cool stuff that many of us want. As developers we are being denied the chance to be creative and innovate in a market that is sadly lacking in fresh ideas. I don’t want more widgets or beer farting apps…I want the next evolution of mobile, media, and ubiquitous computing. And that my friends, is Augmented Reality.

So, in summary, as long as Apple remains greedy and closed off, and the media/money sources out there only have eyes for the IPhone market, innovation and advancement in commercial Augmented Reality will be slowed, handicapped, and stilted as it is forced to restrict itself to the common elements of GPS, compass, and accelerometer.

This isn’t good enough. Open up the SDK Apple.