Imagine the scene: Tim Cook is nervous. His palms are sweaty. The whole board room looks on, waiting for his killer announcement. The iPhone 7 underwhelmed the masses. A refresh of MacBooks added only a row of shiny buttons. He’s got one shot to make Apple great again—but he’s choking.
He removes his glasses. Massages the bridge of his nose. And it hits him. “Glasses,” he thinks to himself. “People didn’t buy watches, but I’ll damn well get them to buy glasses.”
That’s the scene one imagines could have played out upon reading a Bloomberg report that Apple is considering the idea of producing digital glasses. The specs would, we’re told, “connect wirelessly to iPhones, show images and other information in the wearer’s field of vision, and may use augmented reality.”
Google, with its ill-fated Glass project, tried and prominently failed to make such an idea work. Launched in April 2013 and later made available as part of an “Explorer Program” for the princely sum of $1,500, the glasses were canned as a commercial product in 2015. Aside from being ridiculously expensive and abhorrent to privacy advocates, perhaps its biggest failing was trying to invent the future far before the public was ready for it.
Enter Snap, with its pared-back Spectacles. The Ray-Bans-esque glasses allow wearers to shoot video, transfer it to their smartphone via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, then post it to Snapchat. That’s it. Simple and, it seems, compelling: the specs went on limited sale just last week and millennials are clamoring for the things.
Where would Apple’s offering land in comparison? No doubt they would be sleek and stylish—something James Bond might wear if his eyesight failed, rather than Snap’s Lady Gaga-friendly offering. They’d also likely be more expensive. But it’s unlikely that the market for Snap’s simple video-shooting glasses will scale in the way Apple needs if it plans for this to be the Next Big Thing.
Instead, the device could be a vehicle for augmented reality. It’s no secret that Apple has been experimenting with virtual and augmented reality. A string of patents, hires, acquisitions, and admissions from Cook himself all suggest that Apple thinks that AR is more attractive to consumers than VR.
Apple could very well be sitting on something as exciting as a miniaturized version of Microsoft's Hololens or DAQRI’s Smart Helmet. While Pokémon Go whetted popular appetite for AR, it’s yet to have its big break. Apple could provide it.
The other possibility is that it could turn out to be Apple Watch Redux. The first iteration failed to capture the imagination of the gadget-buying populace, and its semi-pivot to make it more of a fitness tracker doesn’t seem to have injected much excitement.
If—and it’s a big if—Apple does make a pair of smart glasses, it will have to ensure that it’s a product that opens up new possibilities for consumers. A video camera and notification screen won’t be enough. It’ll need to, quite literally, help people see the world a little differently. Don’t blow it, Tim.