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Apple is reportedly testing augmented reality technology

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March 18, 2015

According to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, Apple is reportedly exploring new ways to enter the augmented reality (AR) technology segment.

In an investor's note released today, Munster cited conversations with industry contacts who claim that Apple has a small team exploring AR, which he believes "has the potential to be as profound a technology platform as the smartphone today."

The mobile industry analyst also said that he thinks Apple has the ability to create products that consumers would truly crave as opposed to the prototype devices available today.

So what exactly is augmented reality? And how is it different from virtual reality? Augmented reality (AR) overlays digital information onto the real world. Perhaps the best example to date is a product like Google Glass, which lets you see the world around you as it is, but also projects information onto a lens in front of your eyes.

In stark contrast, virtual reality places you into a total digital environment with no awareness of the world around you: for example, think of headsets like the Oculus Rift or Sony's Morpheus.

Augmented-reality devices are already popping up. Beyond Google Glass, other products due out this year include Sony's Smart Eyeglass Developer Edition and Microsoft's HoloLens.

However, overall consumer adoption and general acceptance of such mobile devices can be problematic, especially since users are forced to wear clunky and obtrusive glasses.

Google pulled the plug on its Glass device in January, saying the $1,500 device was years away from becoming a mass-market product.

Google also added that it has plans for a follow-on product sometime in the future, but didn't provide further details.

So just how Apple might succeed where Google has so far failed? Just as Apple designed its new Apple Watch to emphasize style over technology, the company could do the same with a wearable AR device, Munster added.

"We also believe that wearables are meant to be worn and seen, thus they need to be fashionable as well," Munster added.

"To be sure, augmented reality will require some type of technology that projects images in the user's eyesight (ultimately augmented reality may be delivered via implants). We believe that Apple has the unique ability to combine the technology of augmented reality with attractive fashion/design that users will actually want to wear," said Munster.

Though he believes Apple is looking into these possibilities with augmented reality, an actual device could be years away, nevertheless.

Right now, Apple's team is simply trying to determine how to make a wearable AR device that would be fashionably and socially acceptable.

As such, the current experiments may not even result in an actual product per se. But Apple has brought in a list of new hires from the fashion and retail world to help launch the Apple Watch and turn the company into more of a fashion brand, according to Munster.

Those include former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts to head retail, former Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve as vice president of special projects, designer Marc Newson and former global marketing director for Gap Marcela Aguilar as Apple's global marketing director.

"We believe Apple's growing abilities in fashion and design could help the company develop other wearable products longer-term, particularly augmented reality focused devices," Munster said.

Apple could also adopt AR for its existing lineup of mobile devices. The company has filed several patents with the the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that deal with augmented reality.

For example, an Apple patent application published last November called "Transparent electronic device" envisioned a way of overlaying images over real-world viewable objects.

The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) wireless carriers' forum has determined a form of concept of what 5G's future should soon look like, and set forth a plan of its ideal vision of a post-4G world.

In a nutshell, the 5G world is going to have to get moving on this real soon, although the roadmap, with contributions from luminaries such as AT&T, British Telecom, China Mobile, DoCoMo, SingTel, Verizon Wireless, Vodafone, Telstra and a few others, wants the first steps to be complete by the end of 2015.

With detailed requirements for this so-called '5G roadmap' called for by the end of this year, the paper lays out the remaining steps as being:

  • Initial system design by 2017
  • Trials in 2018
  • Standards ready by the end of 2017
  • Commercial offerings by 2020
  • That's a rather challenging timeline, considering that what wireless carriers see 5th generation networks like they're being put together a 'bit at the last minute'.

    For example, the NGMN Group has noticed that 5G is going to have to support mobile handsets, transceivers in cars and a who-knows-how-many IoT (Internet of Things) devices, so the network will have to be able to be sliced up in so many ways that each use-case gets the resources it needs.

    As the paper notes, IoT sensor deployments could demand “several hundred thousand simultaneous active connections per square kilometre”.

    Wireless carriers also say that they'd like to replace the office LAN, calling for industry standards that can deliver “1 Gb/s to be offered simultaneously to tens of workers in the same office floor”.

    Unsurprisingly, 4G wireless spectrum efficiency is inadequate for the future, at least for now-- “In particular, the average spectrum efficiency (measured in bit/s/Hz/cell) and the cell-edge spectrum efficiency (measured in bit/s/Hz/user) should be improved”, the paper states.

    The NGMN wants 5G to be the path by which the world will get 50 MBPS just about everywhere, with capacity and network latency able to support “extreme real time communications” like the “tactile Internet”, sufficient reliability for M2M and eHealth solutions.

    Remembering that wireless carriers are already challenged by the erosion of their revenue base needs to be delivered on a technology that also enables “ultra low-cost networks”, the group says.

    “5G is expected to be flexible enough to be deployed under ultra-low cost requirements” for low-ARPU locations such as emerging markets, or low-density areas in existing markets, it suggests.

    The NGMN says “a key requirement for 5G will be that a consistent customer experience is achieved across time and service footprint” in a “5G eco-system that is truly global, free of fragmentation and open for innovations”.

    Devices will have to be multi-band and multi-mode, which will also place a premium on battery life and device efficiency, with the NGMN paper calling for three-day life for smartphones and up to 15 years for low-cost IoT devices.

    The world's also going to have to get going soon on what could be the biggest bug the industry has to swallow in delivering 5G-- spectrum allocation reform.

    Noting that there's nowhere near enough space in today's mobile spectrum to meet its 5G exhaustive list, the NGMN calls for “study technical feasibility of the ranges between 6 GHz and around 100 GHz, in particular those where primary or co-primary allocation to mobile in the ITU Radio Regulations exists already. The lower limit for the band range (above 6 GHz) should be further assessed,” it added.

    Considering how slowly political processes move and the capacity for existing spectrum users to stymie reform, it might be very challenging to find enough radio spectrum in the next five years to do everything the wireless carriers are hoping for.

    Today at the Mobile World Congress conference, BlackBerry said it will port key client platform features like its soft keyboard, Universal Search and Hub to iPhone and Android OSs.

    The company also added it will throw those features into its enterprise software bundles as well.

    That BlackBerry makes that decision today comes as no surprise to many, and it marks a huge leap along the company’s transition to a software services company.

    However, CEO John Chen denied that BlackBerry was exiting the hardware business. The company has already made some of its crown jewels cross-platform, such as BBM and added others, such as its BBM Meetings scheduling service.

    Today it’s throwing the unified messaging client Hub, Calendar, Documents to Go, Universal Search and the distinctive software keyboard into the mix.

    BlackBerry will also offer a menu of three bundles-– Security Suite (which includes containers, authentication services and a VPN, Communication Suite (including BBM and Meetings) and a Productivity Suite.

    All require a BlackBerry server, and will only be consumer offerings if telcom firms and hosting companies begin to offer them, which isn’t entirely implausible, depending to whom you talk to.

    To be sure, BlackBerry's strategy of offering secure and mature software to enterprises in a world dominated by consumer-focused iPhone and Android platforms makes sense.

    While the consumer hardware advances every year, the software doesn’t, and lacks the maturity and security enterprises desperately need.

    BlackBerry can take advantage of its unique managed network to give it an advantage. But coherent and unique, it’s a crowded marketplace, and the execution will need to be perfect, something BlackBerry has never been known for.

    The biggest impact is likely to be on Microsoft, which sidelined its enterprise-friendly Windows Mobile platform a few years ago, and now places its focus on a consumer replacement, Windows Phone.

    Microsoft has slowly been adding those features back like VPN ever since. In 2014, BlackBerry said it had several devices in the pipeline, aimed at businesses.

    John Chen has said that if it can turn a profit from the sale of 10 million devices or more, he'll be happy.

    Telecom provider Comcast and a few others are firing what looks like warning shots over the FCC's historic decision yesterday, and things will probably get ugly real soon.

    The FCC passed new Internet regulation yesterday that prevent network owners like AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon from discriminating against what kind of traffic runs over their networks.

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    The news didn't surprise most in the industry since it was largely expected, and has been brewing for several years already.

    Comcast has repeatedly warned that a bitter legal fight is coming, and is ramping up its legal department for a mini war with the FCC, it would appear.

    "After today, the only certainty is that we all face inevitable litigation and years of regulatory uncertainty," said Comcast's executive vice president, David Cohen.

    And it's very similar to the warning that AT&T has made about two weeks ago. Comcast's legal threat is real, which is why despite the cheers of victory from populist groups yesterday, the net neutrality war is far from over-- it has barely started, Comcast is suggesting.

    To be sure, the FCC rules won't be official yet until maybe summertime at the earliest. That's when major telecom companies will challenge the rules in court. This will leave them ample time for a coordinated battle with the federal communications agency.

    A similar legal battle is why we're in this mess now. The last time the FCC tried to protect "Open Internet" rules, Verizon sued and the agency eventually lost in federal court.

    However, the FCC isn't letting go, and now Comcast made a veiled threat to cancel plans to invest in its own broadband network.

    "After seeing the Order, we'll have to engage in additional internal scrutiny on what our investment plans with respect to broadband will be going forward," Cohen warned.

    During Thursday's vote, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called the telecom industry's bluff over investment, saying that companies will continue to expand despite the new net neutrality rules.

    Additionally, if Comcast wants to merge with Time Warner Cable, a megadeal that's under review by the FCC and Congress, it will need to keep to its promise to invest in its network.

    The whole purpose of the proposed merger "is to create the scale that will allow Comcast to make larger investments in R&D, innovation, and infrastructure to enable us to compete more effectively in this dynamic marketplace," Comcast promised late last year.

    Unless that marketplace suddenly has become uncompetitive, it still needs to invest. As does Time Warner Cable, Carter, Cablevision and the other large broadband Internet providers.

    Well American consumers have been waiting for this for a long time, and now it looks like the days of wireless carriers locking down smartphones to keep their customers on board might be a thing of the past.

    Starting today, all U.S. wireless carriers must comply with requests from postpaid and prepaid mobile customers to unlock their devices, as long as certain parameters are met.

    To be clear, the rules officially came down as early as 2013 and the industry group CTIA committed in 2014 to have all wireless carriers adhering to the new regulations by February 11 of this year.

    The debate over device unlocking has come a long way in just a few short years. Unlocking a smartphone allows its owners to put the device on whatever mobile carrier network they choose.

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    Source: Apple.

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