By Mike Boland
Mike is Street Fight’s lead analyst. He is also chief analyst of ARtillry Intelligence and SF Chapter President of the VR/AR Association.
I often joke that the original form of AR was radio. It “augments” your perception of the world while jogging, driving, or at other times you tune in. Joking aside, a new area of innovation I’m calling AR audio could beat its buzzier graphical counterpart to market. And it has lots of use cases within local AR.
The idea is that instead of—or along with—graphics, audio could be a valuable AR modality. Delivered through an ambient whisper that’s a sort of informational “overlay,” its benefits include style and discreetness. It also aligns with advancements in voice processing and digital assistants (Alexa, et al.).
The next step for these digital assistants could be an ambient audio channel that stays with you all day. Google, Amazon, and Apple have a vested interest in forming that persistent consumer touch point. But the first step is developing hardware and getting people to actually wear it all day.
Enter AirPods, which could be a market-seeding play from the famously AR-bullish Apple. They’re just sleek enough to engender that all-day use. Google’s Pixel Buds could do the same, but they’re a bit clunkier in current form. Either way, Google has similar AR audio ambitions.
For example, using Google Assistant, Pixel Buds can perform real-time language translation. Think of it like the in-ear translation system used by UN delegates, but for the rest of us. In fact, live audible language translation is a good example of the directions “AR audio” will go.
Other possible applications include audible details about the street you’re walking down, an upcoming business meeting, or someone you’re shaking hands with at a conference. LinkedIn could develop an app that delivers these audible stats subtly and on the fly—all without being a “glasshole.”
The way it could play out: Sleekness and portability will condition people to leave AirPods or competing hardware in their ears all day (which is already happening). That engenders a new channel for ambient audio. From there, it’s up to app developers to build content and use cases, like the LinkedIn example.
AR Audio also brings to mind Google’s early smartphone-era construct of “micro moments.” These are the content snacking moments in the grocery line or subway—pulling out your phone for a quick fix of email, Facebook, or Snapchat. It created lots of opportunity for media delivery and of course search.
But audio’s advantage again is its discreetness. It’s less cumbersome than pulling out your phone. Because AR glasses are held back by cultural and stylistic factors, the subtlety of ambient audio could fill an important gap. Plus, the all-day use case creates openings for all kinds of monetization.
Of course, visual AR won’t go away and is aligned with several use cases like gaming. But audio could get here sooner and take over a certain share of micro moments like getting informed about people or surroundings. We’re talking local discovery, shopping, and proximity-based social media.
As for who’s better positioned, AirPods have greater near-term reach than Pixel Buds. The former operate with about 600 million iPhones, while the latter work only with Google Pixel and Pixel 2. They can connect with other phones—even iPhones—but just as standard headphones.
But Pixel Buds have a longer-run advantage when they—and Google Assistant—are phased in to the larger Android Universe. Moreover, Google Assistant (the brain behind Pixel Buds) blows Siri (the brain behind Airpods) out of the water in terms of digital-assistant chops. It’s not even close.
Apple’s Achilles’ heel for AR audio is in fact Siri. Google Assistant will win the voice search and general-knowledge AI game, based on the extensiveness of Google’s knowledge graph. It will also outperform Amazon Alexa, because it’s a better overall AI engine with more data, though that race could be closer.
Still, Apple is also planting its seeds, meaning we could have another platform war on our hands, tied to the others that Apple and Google continue to wage.