Apple’s new augmented reality platform ARKit is pretty cool itself, but even cooler is what its launch implies: Apple has unleashed some truly cutting edge tech.
That cutting edge tech, with a little more development, could open the door for virtual reality.
ARKit lets app makers map digital objects into 3D space by drawing on detailed camera and sensor data. The platform does what Apple calls “world tracking”: it finds points in your surrounding environment, then tracks them while you move your phone.
Rather than building a 3D model of a given space, ARKit can pin objects to a certain point of reference so as to accurately adjust scale and perspective.
ARKit can locate flat surfaces, allowing users to set up digital props on tables, floors or chairs — something Wayfair has been doing for a while now. With ARKit, developers won’t have to build their own tracking and imaging systems since they’ll have access to the tracking capabilities of the iPhone and iPad.
Word on the street is that ARKit is a step in Apple’s plan to develop augmented reality glasses.
That’s all fine and good, but let’s dive a little deeper into what else could be unfolding.
Paving the way to virtual reality
So the phone can track someone walking around a virtual object. Now, what if you put that phone into a VR headset? One could assume this would allow a user to walk around in a virtual environment. It’s not far-fetched at all; Google’s all-in-one VR headset was wired around Tango technology. Here’s another curious thing: Apple is rumored to be switching to VR-friendly OLED screens. Hmm.
Could there be an iPhone-based headset in the near future?
Rumors have been swirling around the topic for years now. Although Apple CEO Tim Cook has openly stated his preference for AR over VR, this new platform could counter his own arguments. The way Cook sees it, “VR isn’t going to be that big compared to AR. How long will it take? AR is going take a little while, because there’s some really hard technology challenges there. But it will happen. It will happen in a big way. And we will wonder, when it does [happen], how we lived without it. Kind of how we wonder how we lived without our [smartphones] today.” Cook doubts VR’s success because he thinks people don’t want to be cut off from reality.
AR is different, he says, because it simply enhances the world we already live in.
Let’s use Cook’s smartphone analogy. Like the smartphone, as AR becomes more sophisticated, it will become the new normal. People will start wanting more. When we become accustomed to our flashy augmented details accessorizing our daily lives, virtual reality won’t seem like such a big leap.
Apple has also recently made several interesting hires, including several former Microsoft employees with backgrounds in 3D user interfaces and machine learning for human activity recognition.
We don’t know exactly what’s cooking, but it certainly smells like VR.
Now let’s step back and focus on what we know. Apple’s got a new augmented reality platform. But is ARKit any more out of this world than other big names in the AR space? Yes and no.
Not exactly an underdog
Google and Facebook have also been hard at work on their own augmented reality platforms, but Apple’s has several advantages.
First, ARKit will be available on a vast array of devices, as opposed to Google’s Tango, which requires special hardware to be built into each Android device.
As for Facebook’s AR platform, despite boasting some impressive machine learning and adorable cartoon characters, developers are confined to Facebook’s Camera app. Apple, on the other hand, will allow developers to play around with adding augmented reality to independent iOS apps. For this reason, Apple claims to have “the largest AR platform in the world.”
So what will it mean when developers can build AR-first apps?
Even the much hyped-about Pokemon Go only use AR as a fun little bonus feature, not its main selling point. Snapchat and Facebook added AR into their platforms, but the popularity of these features comes from both companies’ large user bases, not from AR itself.
With ARKit, augmented reality will be way more accessible since developers can put their apps in front of large audiences for cheap.
This could eventually mean AR features become integrated into everyday apps we already use, like video chats, games and maps — henceforth beginning the gradual transformation of what we view as normal.
ARKit sounds promising, but it’s not hands down the best of the best.
It can definitely benefit from some of its competitors’ features, such as extra cameras built to capture depth data and wide-angle images, which would give ARKit the ability to construct 3D models of entire rooms — something Tango can already do relatively easily.
Failing to launch
Virtual reality, despite many attempts from major tech companies, has yet to really compel consumers enough to take off in a big way. It’s a fascinating concept that just needs to be executed correctly.
If Apple can fine-tune various elements of the AR apps already out there and then transcend into virtual, we might finally have a VR platform with that “wow” factor we’ve been waiting for.