The news that Apple hasn’t joined an all-new industry alliance that seems mostly led by its competitors isn’t terribly surprising.
Augmented and virtual reality shouldn’t be defined as virtual designer shopping experiences, NFTs, and escapism — these powerful tools should become solutions that extend and embrace our existing universe.
What’s the story?
Apple apparently declined to join a new outfit called the Metaverse Standards Forum, which already includes some of the bigger names in this new dimension. Member companies presently include Microsoft, Sony, Nvidia, Adobe, and some of Apple’s biggest competitors, including Facebook (now Meta) and Epic Games.
For what it's worth, Alphabet also hasn't signed up with the group, which describes itself as a space in which companies and standards organizations “foster alignment” on “metaverse interoperability standards." To achieve this, the group says it will “accelerate” standards development by running, “pragmatic, action-based projects."
What is the Metaverse Standards Forum?
The idea behind these “action-based projects” is, apparently, to help different visions of the metaverse work together, which all sounds great within a certain Overton Window. What could possibly not be great about being able to step seamlessly between virtual experiences in these virtual worlds — particularly if they all offer the chance to spend non-virtual cash on virtual designer clothes. That joy is palpable.
More specifically, the Forum says it may get involved in “diverse tech domains," such as:
- Interactive 3D assets and photorealistic rendering.
- Human interface and interaction paradigms including AR, VR and XR.
- User created content.
- Avatars, identity management and privacy.
- Financial transactions.
- IOT and digital twins.
- Geospatial systems.
It is worth pointing out that Apple is already working with some of the 35 founding companies named in the Metaverse Standards Forum press release. It worked to develop the USDZ 3D file format with Adobe and Pixar, for example.
It is also worth observing that Apple doesn’t at present offer a product for the metaverse, beyond the AR capabilities already available across its platforms.
Apple’s plans remain virtual – for now
Why would Apple join a metaverse association when it doesn't now have a product to drive it? Doing so would form tacit admission of the secretive firm’s mission.
Apple CEO Tim Cook did drop a few more hints concerning Apple’s AR plans in China last week: “I could not be more excited about the opportunities in the space. Sort of stay tuned, and you will see what we have to offer,” he said.
But I don’t think it’s just secrecy or a desire to put a little distance between the company and some of its competitors driving Apple’s decision. Nor do I think it (yet) represents the next iteration of the standards war.
(Some readers may recall the wars between video cassette and high-definition TV standards — these are likely to be repeated in the so-called metaverse.)
I think it’s a fundamental philosophical difference. You see, while most of the buzz around metaverse is the idea of sticking goggles on your head to explore virtual experiences like being a character in "The Sims," I think Apple’s vision extends to more profound implementations.
Augmenting reality should make reality better, while virtual reality should give people opportunity to experiment in better worlds. Apple will want to take these technologies to the intersection between technology and the liberal arts to augment and enhance human capability. That’s about creating solutions that are truly useful to people.
Apple isn’t building a metaverse
It wants to extend the universe, creating solutions that transform lives, rather than enabling the creation of somewhat dystopian supra-realities that confound our senses for no real purpose.
At present, the only real risk it faces through not joining the new standards body is familiar to the company: competitors may reach market first with their visions, but Apple will strive to deliver solutions that aim to meet real human need.
We saw it before with iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. We experienced it with the iPod. The resurgence of the Mac across the last 20 years reflects the same reality.
Ultimately, product design requires that what is produced delivers meaningful and purpose-driven experiences. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Apple quietly gets involved in the new standards group down the line — assuming the group can help it make a difference, that is.