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What the iPhone 7 tells us about the future of Apple

Dual cameras could pave the way for a move into virtual reality.

Apple CEO Tim Cook (L) and dancer Maddie Ziegler are seen in the product demonstration area during a launch event on September 7, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Apple Inc. unveiled the latest iterations of its smart phone, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, the Stephen Lam / Getty Images

While many have noted how similar the iPhone 7 is to its predecessors, its subtle changes may actually tell us quite a bit about where Apple is headed.

The dual cameras, in particular, suggest a future that could be a step toward a broader play on virtual reality.

"Dual camera means depth, and depth means three things," said Alban Denoyel, CEO of 3-D company Sketchfab in an email interview with Recode. Capturing depth information, he said, allows for capturing a three-dimensional scene, positional tracking and gesture recognition.

That, he said, puts Apple on equal footing with other players in the space including Intel’s RealSense, Vuforia, Leap Motion and Google Tango. And while Apple didn’t talk about virtual or augmented reality on tage last week, it has expressed interest in the markets and made acquisitions to better position itself, including PrimeSense and LinX.

Apple’s initial use of the two cameras is far more modest. As the iPhone 7 ships, the dual cameras are being used only to offer zooming capability. Apple has also said it will add a depth portrait feature later this year that will combine the images to offer a blurred background.

"As you know, Apple likes to ship a new hardware feature with one use case first and add uses and iterate over time," mobile expert Benedict Evans told Recode. "So it's more suggestive than tangible."

Still, Evans said this represents a big step, reminding people that Apple added a fingerprint sensor to the iPhone a year before it introduced Apple Pay.

Adding even more camera modules could lead to even more imaging ability. That’s the approach taken by startup Light, which uses 16 different smartphone modules in an attempt to take on SLR cameras. Even with two cameras, Apple could do more out of the gate.

But Apple is letting other companies make their own use of the data coming from the two cameras, potentially meaning others could create virtual reality and other applications ahead of the iPhone maker.

"It seems to me they have the hardware ready, but they don’t have everything worked out yet," Light co-founder Rajiv Laroia said in an interview. "Some things have been left for the future or third parties."

The dual cameras, only available on the iPhone 7 Plus that goes on sale Friday, are seen as the most tangible way in which Apple’s future is on display in its new phone.

It’s not just the cameras, though. Apple’s wireless headphones, called AirPods, also show Apple’s ability to seamlessly connect the iPhone to other devices.

While the AirPods do use Bluetooth, Apple has done a lot of work in silicon and in software to make wireless connections simpler and more power efficient. That’s tech that could come in handy for other add-ons well beyond headphones.

Also, with iOS 10, Apple is moving further into machine learning. Until now, Apple had been seen as being at risk of falling behind in this area, especially given its strict privacy policy, which limits the amount of data it collects.

Apple says it now feels it can both collect the data it needs to get better at things like categorizing photos while also protecting users, using an approach known as differential privacy. And Apple says it won’t collect such information unless people explicitly give their okay.

Evans says machine learning appears to have a wide range of uses and sees the technology being "applied very broadly across the industry and not for things that look like obvious database/machine-learning problems."

Apple is starting with a few specific areas, such as emoji and deep links within applications. But this, too, appears to be a starting point rather than an end state.

iPhone 7 Plus camera features

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