Apple announced its augmented reality (AR) developer platform ARKit at its developer conference, and developers are already using it to craft AR content for iOS.
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Not First, but Best?
The first official confirmation of Apple’s involvement in augmented reality (AR) was realized at WWDC this year, with the launch of ARKit. Introduced in the new iOS 11, ARKit is a development tool to enable overlay of digital information on the view through a device’s camera. The technology at a base level is not new, but ARKit’s demonstrations prove that, at the very least, ARKit promises to be a mature AR offering out of the gate, on a platform with millions of users and a developer base to support them. Patents, hiring details, and leaks all but confirmed some level of involvement from the company, and it is logical for Apple to start with, and this is likely to be step one in a longer timeline for AR from Apple.
A Few Key Differentiators
There are a few primary points to highlight when looking at Apple’s ARKit play:
ARKit only requires hardware already existing in current iOS devices (meaning no additional sensors). Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO) combines camera sensor data along with CoreMotion data, which is Apple’s branding for gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, pedometer, and barometer metrics. This contrasts with Google’s Tango approach, which uses dedicated sensors to achieve similar results, and is important for two reasons; one, hardware requirements will not pose a significant adoption barrier, and two, content development and creation is simplified with the in-house end-to-end approach Apple takes to their products.
Secondly, it has been mentioned many times, but it bears mentioning again; the install base of iOS, even when limited only to newer devices, is dominant. First-party support for this hardware install base on its own is significant. ARKit is launching into a target-rich environment of both users and developers, which has been rare in the AR market. This means that not only the upcoming iPhone lineup, but also existing devices, will be AR-enabled. From a developer standpoint, there has not been a more promising initial AR launch opportunity.
Finally, and perhaps most interesting, is lighting estimation. Proper lighting for AR/mixed reality (MR)/virtual reality (VR) requires understanding the scene in regard to light and shadows, and ultimately shading the virtual object naturally. This has been a goal for a few years now; in fact, if lighting estimation is done well with ARKit, it will permeate through the market and force a focus shift for other platforms that do not support it. In terms of immersion, proper lighting is high on the list, and this is especially prudent for a consumer-heavy user base in iOS.
Glimpse of More to Come?
The AR market has fallen in line with stereotypes of both Apple and Google. Apple, rarely first but striving to be best, releases a competitive and (initially) impressive ARKit. Google releases Google Tango early in the grand scope of the AR market, but we have yet to see a notable presence for the technology outside of developer kits and a few smartphones. While these are not the same type of product, it does show a disparity between the companies in how they approach a market. Google Tango is clearly a more future-looking venture, and can be more capable based solely on dedicated hardware support, but that does not solve the very real problem today there with content availability, quality, and interest; ARKit can solve that problem, and soon.
Apple would do well to further prove itself as an innovator by pushing its AR presence significantly. The first and most obvious step would be to increase the sensor capabilities for the new iPhone lineup. Something akin to Google Tango, in conjunction with ARKit, would be a powerhouse in the mobile AR space. A more drastic step, but one that would fight the stagnant stereotype the company has been facing, is a smart glasses product. The enterprise market has preceded any consumer activity and interest in smart glasses, due to price and general necessity for AR; however, with a notable developer and content ecosystem on iOS with Apple brand recognition, marketing, design, and social appeal, success could be had with relative ease. If a consumer-ready product was launched sometime in 2018, Apple would be one of the first to realistically hit the consumer smart glasses space. A lack of content, which has plagued both AR and VR markets for consumers and enterprises, would be solved with the expected level of ARKit development; pushing this content to both phones and a tandem glasses product—whether standalone or tethered to phones—ensures this is true for the entire theoretical Apple AR ecosystem.