It was about a decade ago that Apple released the first iPhone. I happened to be working for a research unit of an international telecommunications company at the time and I could still remember the excitement about it at the time.
The iPhone was a game changer. It marked the beginning of the smartphone era. Android (by Google) came soon after that but it was Apple that was the innovator. Especially in the early days, much of what could be seen on Android phones were just copies of iPhone features.
Of course things have changed a lot over the past 10 years and actually today, much of the innovation seen in smartphone technology have been on Android phones rather than iPhones.
While the former has been launching interesting new features, the latter has been releasing new versions with better processors, better screens and better cameras. Improvements, for sure, but not innovations.
Will the iPhone X turn things around and put Apple in the driver’s seat again? The company certainly thinks so. It referred to the iPhone X as “the future of the smartphone.”
But if you look at the dizzying array of new features it has, you’ll find that much of it isn’t all that new after all. Variations of those features can be found on Android phones which are already in the market.
At 5.8 inches, the iPhone X’s screen size is the biggest of any iPhone yet but there are plenty of Android phones with larger screen sizes than that. Then there’s the marvellous OLED (also referred to as AMOLED) display which offers better colours and more energy savings compared to the traditional LCD display. Samsung has used OLED for years. Wireless charging? That’s also something already available in the market for some time now.
These types of features — though not new to the industry — are new to the iPhone. Taken together as a whole and made available via iPhone X, such enhancements should excite Apple’s fan base. But will iPhone X impact the development of future smartphones?
Likely so, and that’s because of two new features: facial recognition and augmented reality (AR). Granted, neither of these technologies is new for mobile phones. Again, there are other phones out there that have already featured these in some form. But the way Apple is using them will be a game-changer.
Face ID is a way to unlock your iPhone and also to pay for something online. As is usually the case, Apple wasn’t the pioneer for incorporating facial recognition software into phones. Microsoft had something called Windows Hello for the Lumia 950 phone which allowed unlocking of the phone through facial recognition. Samsung later came out with something similar called Face Unlock.
So this technology has been around. But Apple is introducing some really cool things you can do with it. Take, for example, surface notification. The iPhone X’s front-facing camera can show you notifications once it recognises your face. It will also keep the screen lit when it recognises that you’re reading something on the phone. And, it can automatically lower the volume of an alarm or ringer if you happen to be staring at the screen when these things go off.
All very neat but by far the most impactful functionality will be the ability to pay for things through facial recognition. It’s worth noting that Samsung’s Face Unlock isn’t secure enough for mobile payments but Apple’s Face ID is.
How Face ID works is that it scans your face with 30,000 invisible infrared dots to determine that it’s actually you and not some picture of you or a mask of you. According to Apple, it also utilises machine learning to adapt to changes in your appearance. Apparently even if you forget to shave for a few days and start to grow a stubble or if you change your hairstyle, iPhone X will still be able to recognise you.
The system is so sophisticated that the chances of someone tricking Face ID are one in a million, according to Apple. That’s a pretty impressive statistic but whether Face ID is as secure as Apple claims it to be will be tested in the months to come as it makes its way to millions of new owners. You can be sure any glitches of some kind will be widely covered by the media.
You can also be sure that all the other phone makers are now scrambling to come up with advanced biometrics so that their phones can also offer the same kind of secure facial recognition functionality as Face ID.
Apple first made clear that it was entering the Augmented Reality (AR) arena at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June when it unveiled ARKit, a set of tools that makes it easier for developers to incorporate AR into their apps. (AR is a technology that allows the phone’s camera to mix virtual and physical objects).
Apple has confirmed its commitment to AR by stating that iPhone X was purpose-built for AR apps with its cameras calibrated for AR and with its facial recognition software making it easier for apps like Snapchat to map virtual masks onto the owner’s face for selfies.
AR, like its cousin VR (virtual reality, which I wrote about recently), has been around for a long time but hasn’t really taken off in a big way yet. This will probably change with the launch of the iPhone X. In the years to come, hundreds of millions of people will own AR-capable devices.
ARKit coupled with iPhone’s depth-sensing camera technologies could lead to revolutionary new developments in mobile AR applications. Initially we’ll see great enhancements in the gaming and selfie areas. Pokemon Go is the best example of AR in use in the mobile gaming industry and Snapchat’s filters are an example of AR being used for self-expression. But in time, AR will definitely become integrated into many other types of apps as well.
What kind of killer app for AR will emerge, we don’t know yet. But what we do know is that these app developers will now be able to use the camera, accelerometer and gyroscope in a more precise way than ever before.
You can count on some big breakthroughs to emerge from the tens of thousands of developers out there. Some of them are likely to become as regularly used as Whatsapp or Waze are today (for all we know, AR might be integrated into Whatsapp and Waze too). AR-enabled apps will be become such a part of our daily lives that we won’t even wonder at how incredibly advanced and useful they are.
Android will naturally dive deeply into AR as a direct result of what Apple is doing with ARKit (Android’s version of this is called ARCore). Apple has one advantage though. It controls both the hardware and software and can thus more seamlessly integrate these two than can Android as their phones are made by various companies.
Most Android phones function the same way but there are subtle differences, enough that there’s a learning curve involved when you switch from one Android brand to another. In contrast, there’s only one company making the iPhone.
The iPhone X will be available in early November and the base model is priced at a whopping US$999 (RM4,193). That’s a pretty hefty price tag for a premium product like an iPhone. There’ll be many takers and there’ll also be many who’ll hesitate because of the price. But whether you are an iPhone owner or not, the phones you buy in the future will have features similar to it, especially in the areas of facial recognition and AR.
Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. reach him at email@example.com