New iPads, spiffed up iMacs and MacBooks, a smart home speaker, and most exciting of all? A new platform for augmented reality.
That’s what iOS developers and market analysts are saying after playing around with ARKit, Apple’s augmented reality platform that was unveiled along with other new products earlier this month at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose.
“Apple hit it out of the park with ARKit,” said Adam Debreczeni, a designer who works in virtual and augmented reality.
Augmented reality allows computer-generated images or videos to be layered on top of the user’s view of the real world. What was once considered science fiction, AR demonstrated its captivating power last year with the success of “Pokemon Go,” the mobile game allowing users to catch fictional creatures geo-tagged in real locations.
With ARKit, developers expect augmented reality to be applied far beyond gaming, reaching into schools, hospitals and living rooms.
“It’s going to change how we work and live,” said Loup Ventures founder and longtime Apple observer Gene Munster.
As iPhone sales slow, Apple is betting AR will herald a new mode for mobile devices. ARKit requires an iPhone 6S or 7 — and the upcoming iOS 11 for consumers — to run the computer-generated visual overlays on its screens.
But some Apple watchers think this may be the first step in the Cupertino tech giant’s plan to ultimately build a Google Glass-like device, where AR visuals are displayed in a headset without needing a smartphone.
Debreczeni got a taste of the future just a day after ARKit was released to developers. Debreczeni, who also runs a used bicycle marketplace called Velo, created a three-dimensional overlay of his GPS-tracked bicycle ride on the Marin Headlands, which floated above his coffee table. He created the overlay by combining ARKit, a third-party tool called Unity, and an open-source mapping platform called Mapbox.
Debreczeni said his video of the overlay went viral, receiving more than 700,000 views in a week. He was most impressed by ARKit’s ability to track the overlay’s position in relation to the room as he moved around with his phone.
In most AR platforms, developers need numerous cameras and depth sensors to track the overlay’s position. For Debreczeni, all it took was an iPhone and its front and rear cameras.
“The fact that Apple gets it this good with one or two cameras in its beta stage, it is pretty incredible,” said Debreczeni. “It’s a good marker for how strong their AR team looks right now.”
For Apple, ARKit was years in the making. In 2015, Apple purchased a German AR company called Metaio. Earlier that year, Apple filed a patent for a virtual reality headset compatible with the iPhone.
In February, Apple CEO Tim Cook told the British newspaper The Independent he sees AR as a “core technology” comparable to the smartphone.
“We don’t have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it’s for everyone. I think AR is that big, it’s huge,” said Cook. “I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives.”
Following the viral success of “Pokemon Go” last summer and the enduring popularity of Snapchat’s face filters, Apple may have felt encouraged to unveil its ARKit platform to the developers this year, according to Mohammed Azam, a Houston-based iOS instructor.
Like Debreczeni, Azam tinkered with ARKit right after its release. He created a three-dimensional bar chart in his room in two days. “Projects like this can take only 10 lines of code,” said Azam.
Other Silicon Valley companies have offered their own AR platforms much earlier than Apple, including Google and its Tango platform in 2014.
Apple’s late entry into the AR market comes with advantages. ARKit will work on all iPhones 6S and 7, but Tango works on the few Android phones which built specific hardware to support the platform. Once iOS 11 comes out in the fall, millions of iPhones will instantly support AR apps.
While the initial rollout of AR apps may be slow at first, Munster expects an “exponential growth” in both quantity and quality of apps by 2019.
AR also may change the future of Apple products. If AR proves to be commercially successful, Apple may try to build AR glasses to better integrate the apps in a more immersive way.
Despite the potential, AR glasses have been done before with little success. Google Glass was released in 2013 to mixed reviews and much derision over its wonky design. Google decided to discontinue Glass’s production just two years later.
But some believe if there is a Silicon Valley company who can mesh sleek design with high performance into new hardware, it’s Apple.
“The technology is there but the industrial design is not,” said Debreczeni. “Apple is right now the perfect company to find a great solution. It’s just a natural evolution where they are going to be.”