Unity CEO John Riccitiello on Apple’s big event, privacy and the AR apps we’ll see within the year

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Presumably, it would be good for business to speak onstage at an Apple event — essentially the tech world’s equivalent of a U2 concert. But John Riccitiello, the CEO of San Francisco-based Unity Technologies, says you won’t see him presenting at tomorrow’s Apple event or that of any other platform company, for that matter.

The reason: Unity, which makes software at the heart of Pokémon GO and other interactive entertainment, sees itself becoming the de facto content creation engine for a wide number of companies and their applications. While Apple is expected tomorrow to release iOS 11, which includes support for ARKit, a tool kit for developers to easily create AR apps, and Unity supports ARKit, the 13-year-old company doesn’t want to be perceived as playing favorites. Says Riccitiello, “Our philosophy is to put powerful tools in hands of developers, but also to support every meaningful platform so they can have success” — whether that’s Apple or Google or even Amazon.

We talked with Riccitiello earlier today about the company’s approach, along with the short-term future of AR and VR, where Unity is positioned to play a starring role for some time to come. Our chat has been edited for length.

TC: Apple is obviously well-positioned to usher in the AR age with its coming iPhone 8 and iOS 11. How important are these releases to Unity, and will you factor into the show? Are you introducing some news at its event?

JR: We’re probably under 12 NDAs [with Apple]. But we’re by definition cross-platform, so we never build platform-specific demonstrations. We support more than 30 platforms and I can’t think of a time when we’ve produced a platform-specific demo.

I can talk about a lot of other things, though. The future of AR and VR, my family…

TC: Okay then, let’s talk about the future of VR, which is seemingly further out than people had earlier imagined.

JR: Commercial applications are taking off like crazy, but sure, generally speaking, the consumer side of VR is off to a slow start. The hardware is too expensive; it’s not that functional. Those problems will solve themselves by the 2018-2019 time frame, which is what I’ve been saying since 2015.

Now, if you take this new thing, using your phone for AR — [including via] ARKit and [Google’s recently introduced challenger to ARKit] ARCore, the future is coming fast. The biggest app in history was Niantic’s Pokémon GO, powered by Unity. Tens of millions of people played Pokémon GO. That was just the start.

TC: What will we be doing with our phones a year from now?

JR: You’ll point a camera at a friend’s shoes and be told where to get them and at what price. In a year, a friend will be able to use an app that scans your body and comes up with a millimeter accurate picture, so you’ll know what you’d look like inside that particular shirt or dress, based on the dimensions of the garment. You’ll also be able to point your phone at an acquaintance and pull up their LinkedIn profile, or point at a restaurant and a menu will pop up, along with information perhaps about which friends have been there and who the architect is of the building.

We’ve been constrained by what we can type with our thumbs until now. But our [phone] cameras are infinitely more powerful for many, many cases.

TC: What are the some the demands that are made of an engine in a mobile or compact capacity? Presumably you don’t need the graphical fidelity that people expect on their PC or console, but it can’t be terrible either.

JR: On a smaller screen, you’re right that you need less resolution — fewer pixels. But that’s changing fast. All the hardware makers are providing high-resolution screens; they’re going bezel-less to give you more real estate. We’re three to four years behind leading consoles and PCs in terms of overall performance, but as CPUs and GPUs become more efficient and less energy-dependent — processors are capable right now of 30 frames per second and it will be 60 — we’ll be able to do more and more.

Basically, today’s mobile phones are akin to PlayStation 2s. By next year, they’ll be PlayStation 3s. By 2020, they’ll be at the PlayStation 4 level in terms of processing capability.

TC: You mentioned the ability of someone to scan someone else with an augmented reality app and pull up profile information about that person. That’s invariably going to give people the creeps. Do you have privacy concerns or is that something regulators will have to grapple with?

JR: At Unity, we make tools to make things possible. You can make an orphanage or you can make a weapon. People figure out what they’ll make with it.

With privacy, you’re right. Do you want someone pointing a camera and knowing who you are? You can perhaps choose to opt into or out of databases [though that will be tricky]. People might scan their home so they can play a shooter game inside their house, but if mom is taking an antidepressant and it’s on the counter, you maybe don’t want that out there. Or you maybe don’t want your body scan out there in public.

What are smart strategies? Maybe your scan remains only on your device, and the garment comes to you instead of vice versa. Then again, it’s pretty efficient for Amazon to hold your body dimensions, so you can order something not just from your phone but on your computer or tablet. These are issues that regulatory agencies as well as big and small companies will have to wrestle with.

They’re wrestling with them now. My niece’s and nephew’s birthdays are in Amazon [which is a Unity customer]. I can basically click on a football and it lands on [my nephew’s doorway] and I’m glad [founder and CEO Jeff] Bezos figured it out so I don’t look like a knucklehead. But that’s a privacy issue. Amazon knows my nephew’s birthday and address.

TC: So privacy isn’t an issue as long as people like the company, seemingly. I read a piece earlier that noted it would be a lot worse if Google and Facebook were hacked than Equifax, yet people don’t hesitate to provide both companies with all kinds of information.

JR: Most people have very low [privacy] settings on Facebook, and they enjoy the benefit of broadly disseminated information, like when it comes to finding a long-last classmate and being able to ping that person.

But it’ll be harder to crack your fingerprint on an Apple device. Eye scans are even more unique. [Editor’s note: the iPhone 8 is expected to feature an iris scanner.]

I do think there will be smarter ways to stratify where your data lives.

Featured Image: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images