Apple CEO Tim Cook’s fondness for augmented reality is far from a secret — he’s discussed the subject at length numerous times, calling it things like “a big idea, like the smartphone.” And most of this hype talk has been happening only in the past year or so — so it’s no coincidence that the upcoming release of iOS 11 will also mark the company’s official entrance into the world of AR.
You may have already heard the name of iOS 11’s biggest new feature, ARKit: while its arcane-sounding name would suggest otherwise, the technology itself is actually pretty revolutionary. Where Google’s competitor Tango needs an array of sensors and a fairly high amount of hardware power to function, ARKit requires literally nothing more than an already existing iPhone — while it often works better as well.
And from what we’ve seen so far, developers can make some pretty interesting stuff with the technology: it can be used as a makeshift distance measurement tool, it can power video games, it can let you draw in 3D space, and much more — the possibilities are endless.
But there’s only one problem: augmented reality on smartphones, at least as it currently stands, is little more than a simple gimmick.
The problem with screens
You see, even if we imagine the technology works flawlessly (which it sure doesn’t), the use cases where it's practical to take out your phone, open the relevant app, point your device at the desired object, and then walk around are so few and far between the whole thing starts looking like a solution in need of a problem. And not to mention that everything is also happening on a tiny, shaky screen, where interacting with virtual objects feels like a chore.
Case in point: pretty much the first thing any player of the most well-known augmented realitydisaster game Pokémon GO did was to disable the terrible camera AR mode, which only served to make throwing Poké Balls more cumbersome due to the constant on-screen movement.
Or as another example, take Apple’s own ARKit unveiling, whose highlight was an Unreal Engine representative going on stage and showing off… a non-interactive tech demo.
So gaming’s pretty much off the table, but we still have all these other uses, right? Technically yes, but consider the following question: do you ever see yourself actually using your iPhone as a digital ruler, or as a 3D canvas, or an Ikea room furnishing simulator? Because right now these are the best justifications augmented reality on smartphones has ever gotten — everything else so far has been either cheap marketing gimmicks or static tech demos.
And sure, a point can be made that developers are yet to make something more complex that can only ever work in AR, seeing as the ARKit is still just months old. But it's worth noting Apple didn't invent augmented reality — it just made it better. In fact, different solutions have existed on a variety of consumer electronics for years now (see: Sony smartphones, the Nintendo 3DS), so why has there been no 'killer app' for mobile AR yet?
But even with this in mind, don’t be too hasty in thinking Apple has built what is perhaps the best current AR platform, and yet somehow forgotten to gauge its usefulness factor. Quite the opposite — augmented reality could prove to be key in the company’s sustained success a decade or so down the line.
You see, many rumors in the past year (notice a trend?) have claimed Apple is secretly developing an AR headset. In fact, Tim Cook has reportedly built a dream team of engineers, scientists, software developers, and experts in the fields of audio, computer vision, and user experience.
And besides that, there have also been numerous patent filings for different prototypes, though the latest intel say the company is still undecided on the exact direction in which it plans to take its product.
And given that all of Apple's hardware not containing the word 'Mac' in its title runs a variant of iOS, we can expect the very same from the company's AR glasses. So it's only natural for the technology they'll use to be the very same ARKit we'll be seeing make its debut in a couple of weeks.
Building a developer base
So when looked at through this lend, ARKit's early debut on a platform where it isn't really that useful starts making some sense. This way, interested parties will have plenty of time to test out the new technology, and then hopefully figure out possible use cases and release apps utilizing its potential.
And when the time for the actual AR product comes, Apple will have an already established software ecosystem, along with an experienced developer base, right from day one — something every new platform desperately needs.
And as it turns out, an AR headset actually has the potential to fix almost all of the problems associated with mobile AR. For one, its display size is a non-issue, as it'll be constantly stuck to your face. Same goes for movements, as you won’t have to do anything more than what you do when interacting with real-world 3D objects — so no holding a device with one hand, trying to interact with virtual space with the other, all the while avoiding physical objects around you.
But as for augmented reality’s potential once its smartphone-related limitations are removed, we’ll leave the speculating up to the actual visionaries — the technology has just barely made it past the ‘sci-fi dream’ stage, so its real-world uses are yet to be properly explored. Sure, we've already had the Google Glass, but that was a massive failure almost right from the start, meaning developers were never presented with real opportunities to make proper use of it.
So while the mythical Apple AR headset is still reportedly years away from release, a huge amount of people will soon be able to catch a glimpse of what the future holds by just turning on their iPhones — it won’t be perfect, sure, but it’s still something we need to pay very close attention to.