In terms of penetration and impact, one of the most successful AR products to date are Apple’s AirPods. That statement sounds strange because they aren’t often classified as AR. But they could represent an unsung AR modality: sound.

This occurred to me while watching the iPhone 7 launch last fall. Two things jumped out, rooted in the sensory targets of all media: sight and sound. With sight, AR hints were buried in the iPhone 7+, a rumored AR-centric iPhone 8, then finally the more recent and telling release of ARkit.

But sound is where things get a bit more mysterious. AirPods will not only replace the tangled nest of white rubber that’s standard issue for middle-class pockets and purses, it could represent a new audible form factor for informational overlays. The same goes for devices like Here One.

Unpacking that a bit, Airpods’ sleekness and portability could condition a use case to leave them in your ears all day. That then engenders a new channel that’s all about ambient audio. This could make AR’s informational “overlays” less graphical and more audible. We call it “AR Audio.”

For example, one use case could be getting details about an upcoming business meeting or someone you’re shaking hands with at a conference. LinkedIn could develop an app that delivers those audible stats subtly and on the fly, turning us all into quasi-secret service agents.

Image Credit: Google

Micro Moments

This vision brings to mind Google’s smartphone-era construct of “micro moments.” These are the user-prompted 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.

Could AirPods create a new class of micro moments that are audible instead? One advantage is discreetness: It’s less cumbersome than pulling out your phone, and certainly less prone to assuming “glasshole” status. Then again, AirPod theft and loss are going to be a thing.

That discreetness could in fact be audible AR’s greatest strength. Because AR glasses are held back by cultural and stylistic factors, the subtlety of ambient audio could fill an important gap. And the potential all-day use creates a massive addressable market (time) for content.

Of course visual media won’t go away and is more conducive to several content formats. But audio could take over a certain share of micro-moments like getting informed about people or surroundings. Think: local discovery, news, shopping and social pings. It could kill on trivia night.

Image Credit: Apple

Prime Time

On a more serious note, there’s also a limited but altruistically-relevant use case: helping the visually impaired. Pervasive audible intelligence could enable anyone with vision impairment to operate with greater independence. And the input for commands in all scenerios could be voice.

This aligns with the rise of personal assistant apps. The arms race between Siri, Alexa, and Google has accelerated voice processing innovation. So during the 1-2 hardware replacement cycles before AirPods reach ubiquity, voice interfaces will continue to get ready for prime time.

Add it all up and Apple is in prime position to dominate AR. We already knew that, given ARkit and a rumored AR-packing iPhone8. An audible play would give it yet another weapon. And AirPods’ need for a paired iPhone means its installed base of devices further supports the opportunity.

This increasingly apparent position of AR dominance also aligns with Apple’s classic approach: enter a market late, then dominate. We and a few others had a hunch it would do this when its late arrival to VR and AR were under heavy scrutiny last year. Apple could end up being just in time.

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Disclosure: ARtillry has no financial stake in the companies mentioned in this post, nor received payment for its production. Disclosure and ethics policy can be seen here.

Header image credit: Apple