Slim iPad and new hardware show Apple can still innovate

Is it time to reappraise the idea that Apple is incapable of innovation in the post Jobs era?

This is a guest post on Future Proof by Barry Avery of Kingston University, republished from The Conversation

Is it time to reappraise the idea that Apple is incapable of innovation in the post Jobs era? The company has failed to introduce a game changing consumer device since the iPad but its latest range contains some significant breakthroughs.

In a world where bloggers can offer to pay Apple factory line workers hundreds of dollars to leak a photograph of a shell or an internal component, the days of the surprise keynote reveal seem over, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that the new operating systems, 64 bit chip designs and software updates that have just been announced are significant innovations in hardware and software.

In the latest keynote Apple completes its Christmas lineup. We get a slimmer, thinner iPad, a refreshed iPad mini, upgraded laptops and a new version of its desktop operating system OS X Mavericks. In a major departure for Apple, this will be available for free and immediate download.

iPad goes slimline

Conspiracy theorists are already suggesting that the timing of this keynote was specifically set to derail Microsoft and Nokia, who are also launching tablets. It is indeed the case that the tablet market has heated up significantly over the past year, so the pressure was on to produce something the would stand out.

Last year the iPad put on a little weight to accommodate the battery and technology needed to offer a retina display. This year’s renamed iPad Air has lost weight, narrowed, improved its capacity and speed and now comes with free iWorks and iLife software.

Weighing 1lb, Apple claims it to be the lightest full size tablet available. Just as iPhone 5 users are likely not to upgrade to the newer version immediately, the features on the iPad Air may not be enough to get users with last year’s iPad to switch up, but anyone with a pre-retina device will see significant performance increases. The iPad mini gets a retina display and the same A7 chip as the iPad Air, without losing its precious ten hours battery life.

Most users will be unaware of the technical complexities required in porting an operating system to a new 64bit chip design, but accomplishing this whilst simultaneously designing a new interface in iOS is a remarkable achievement. From a user perspective, the switch to a 64bit processor inside both devices will offer immediate speed advantages and an increase in the sophistication of the apps available.

Attempting all this in a year has meant that parts of the iOS transformation weren’t finished for the iPhone launch - iLife and iWorks have been updated on both the Mac and mobile platforms, abandoning leather stitching and wood panels, unifying the interface and ironing out some of the incompatibilities between versions.

Hardware back in fashion

Completing the announcements are hardware upgrades to the Mac computer line. Many have speculated that Apple would embrace the post-PC era by terminating its computer line, but such analysis fails to take account of Steve Jobs' vision of a “virtuous circle”, where features developed on one platform migrate to another. They also fail to explain how developers would create mobile device applications if not with Mac platform development tools.

iOS and Mac OS X share a significant amount of under-the-bonnet code, so increases in functionality flow both ways. Techniques used to improve battery life in Apple laptops make their way into tablets and phones. This ability to advance hardware and software features in parallel offers Apple a significant advantage, which is why you now see companies like Microsoft manufacturing its own tablets, or purchasing Nokia to make its own phones.

The canister-shaped Mac Pro, to be released on the market in December, signals the return of Apple’s attention to its professional range after several years of neglect. Having failed to offer an upgrade for a long time, the company is gambling that most professional users would prefer easily switchable external storage connected through a super fast thunderbolt connector, rather than having a big case with internal components.

Apple famously decries market research, as it suggests that results can only ever be framed in terms of what people have experienced rather than what they could like. The jury is out on this one, but don’t be surprised to discover similar barrel style computers appearing from hardware manufacturers next year.

Barry Avery does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Apple CEO Tim Cook holds the new iPad Air. Photo: Getty Images
Barry Avery is a Principal Lecturer in Informatics and Operations at Kingston University.
Photo: Getty
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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.