Is the AR revolution imminent?
On 12 September Apple is introducing the new version of its flagship, the iPhone 8. The launch of an entirely new iPhone also implies a major update of its operating system iOS.
One of the most significant additions to iOS 11 is undoubtedly ARKit. ARKit is a new framework that makes it relatively easy to develop AR or Augmented Reality experiences for iPhone and iPad.
What is AR (Augmented Reality)?
Augmented Reality adds live computer graphics to a direct or indirect image of reality. In the case of smartphones, for instance, the images of reality are projected on the screen via the camera. Then virtual elements are added that nonetheless appear to be part of reality.
AR should not be confused with VR (Virtual Reality). VR replaces the real world with one that is 100% virtual whereas AR enhances reality.
Pokémon GO mania
The general public was introduced to AR through the short-lived Pokémon GO hype in the summer of 2016 when no fewer than 44 million people played this game on a daily basis. The game requires players to locate and catch virtual Pokémon creatures in the real world.
AR 2.0 will be a wholly different animal. Pokémon GO did include an AR function but it was extremely limited and not really helpful if you wanted to hunt efficiently. Pokémon creatures did little more than simply float about. In the new version (see video below) the Pokémon have their feet firmly planted on the ground, making the experience much more ‘real’.
Meanwhile the Pokémon hype has blown over but it did prove beyond a doubt that AR has a future, a sentiment shared by both Google and Apple.
Google had drawn first blood with its Tango project. Tango is an excellent product and offers a much better AR experience than what Apple and Google are currently cooking up. However, it does have one major drawback: the hardware requirements. In order to function properly, the device needs an additional lens and sensor. In the end, just two devices were marketed that were capable of running Tango apps.
When Apple’s ARKit was announced in June 2017, it was the first SDK of which programmers said “it just works”. No fumbling with calibration, depth cameras or special software. Following its launch, ARKit received lots of praise and meanwhile developers have released a variety of cool demos. Just as important is its compatibility with existing iOS devices (iPhone 6s+, iPhone SE, iPad Pro, iPad (2017)).
Meanwhile Google has abandoned Tango. In September 2017 Google announced ARCore, which is designed to bring AR to their existing devices, just like Apple. The drawback is that as of now their solution supports just 3 devices: Google Pixel, Pixel XL and Samsung Galaxy S8. Due to the fragmentation in the Android world, it can take a while before other devices can support ARCore.
Why is this AR’s time to shine?
At launch, both ARKit and ARCore will run on hundreds of millions of iOS and Android devices, making it really interesting for developers to introduce new applications. In other words, not only will the development process be much simpler, the user base will also be enormous.
Of course, every technology or hardware is only as good as the available software. So far no killer app has been announced. Perhaps Apple is saving this scoop for its special announcement event for the iPhone 8 and iOS 11?
A few of the amazing things created with ARKit so far
In terms of usability, AR is still not ideally suited for mobile phones. To realise its full potential AR must be combined with a heads-up display. A kind of glasses, in other words. However, following the Google Glass disaster it’s fair to assume neither Apple nor Google will be champing at the bit to market new products for this.
I believe it’s do or die for AR in 2017 and 2018. If this technology catches on with the general public we can expect both tech giants to develop new type of devices with better AR user experiences than phones.
Whatever happens, there are exciting times ahead. Will AR force a breakthrough or not? What about VR? Can we expect crossover apps that combine the two? Will they be marketing entirely new heads-up devices next year? Extremely interesting stuff waiting to happen.