Apple is finally getting serious about augmented reality. Amid iOS improvements and new hardware announcements at this year's WWDC, Cook & Co. also launched ARKit, the company's first-ever stab at an augmented reality platform. Since ARKit is baked into iOS 11 and there are already so many iPads and iPhones on the market, Senior Vice President Craig Federighi had the audacity to say onstage that this would be "largest AR platform in the world." That's a pretty bold statement for a newcomer to the AR space. But Apple could very well be the company to pull it off.
And frankly, it's about time. Though virtual reality is the one getting mainstream attention, much of the cutting-edge hype in recent years has revolved around augmented reality. In particular, tech giants like Microsoft and Google have gotten involved; Microsoft dared to invoke the sci-fi trope of the hologram with HoloLens while Google's dance with AR has evolved from the much-too-nerdy Google Glass to more-palatable Project Tango, a 3D-sensing tech so compact that it could live in your phone.
Indeed, Project Tango's vision of AR is perhaps closest to what Apple hopes to accomplish with ARKit. As Apple's onstage demo showed, ARKit taps into the iPhone's camera and motion sensors to add virtual content in real-world environments, like adding steaming cups of coffee onto desks and building miniature worlds on top of tables. It uses "fast stable motion tracking," "ambient lighting estimation" and the "latest computer vision technologies" to build these virtual worlds. From there, Apple hopes developers will create all sorts of applications, from interactive gaming to immersive shopping experiences.
At the same time, ARKit doesn't seem to be as powerful as Tango purports to be. After all, Tango's depth-sensing tech is able to actually map the world around you. You can not only see virtual objects in the real world but also walk over and interact with them -- like, say, blasting away enemy combatants or collecting virtual clues in a mystery game by physically walking over to them. What's more, Tango has a head start: There are already a slew of Tango apps available, and it already has partnerships with stores like Lowe's, with its In-Store Navigation app that helps you find your way around a shop to locate the part you want.
And yet that probably won't prove to be too much of a deterrent to Apple, if only because Tango requires depth-sensing hardware and a special camera for it to all work. That's partly why there's currently only one Tango phone on the market (ASUS' ZenFone AR will be the second): It takes time for companies to come together and make the hardware in the first place. Compare that to the millions of iPhones already out there and you can see why Apple's AR Kit is much more attractive to developers who want a larger audience.
You need only look at Pokémon Go to see the beginnings of Apple's AR reach. Yes, it was just a game that had you chasing down virtual monsters, but the fact that you could see and interact with them in the world around you made the game that much more fun. It's no surprise that one of Apple's demos of ARKit at the WWDC keynote was of an updated Pokémon Go where Pikachu actually has a shadow as it's jumping around.
If you think Apple's ARKit sounds similar to Facebook's Camera Effects Platform, you're right. In a way, the two are similar. It's not all just selfie lenses and camera filters; Facebook wants devs to use the platform to create apps like leaving virtual notes on your refrigerator or interacting with 3D objects in the real world. Snapchat's New World Lenses do the same thing. But Facebook and Snapchat are vertical platforms that are unique to just those two apps. Apple's AR Kit, on the other hand, has the potential to reach a far wider audience, since it can be implemented in, well, anything. Why limit yourself to camera effects when you can compete on the same field as Pokémon Go?
And even though it's late to the party, Apple's ARKit is a historically classic Apple move. Much like how it did with smartphones and MP3 players, the company sat and waited to see how the rest of the tech industry dealt with augmented reality before coming in to offer a simpler and much more mainstream solution. Sure, ARKit isn't as robust as Tango, and it's not as cutting-edge as HoloLens or Magic Leap. But with hundreds of millions of iOS devices already out there, it doesn't need to be. It just needs to be good enough.
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