Since we’re not expecting any sort of hardware update to the iPhone lineup for the next four months at least — no new cameras or depth sensors that would enable 3D AR — that means any Apple advancements around AR in the near term will come from the software side. Some have speculated that Apple could announce “ARkit,” a kind of framework that would integrate parts of the existing camera with new software in a way that would allow developers to gather more information from the camera.
Given that Apple chief executive Tim Cook has spoken so enthusiastically about AR in recent months, saying it’s a “big idea, like the smartphone,” this kind of framework makes a lot of sense. Currently, Apple doesn’t offer a specific API for virtual reality or augmented reality. There’s something called SceneKit, a kind of 3D-rendering engine for games, but no API for real-time object tracking. One developer, who spoke on background because of a pending AR app launch, told me that the one thing he has been hoping for is the ability to “hook into” the iPhone’s camera sensors and directly access the hardware in a way that developers currently can’t.
Plus, if Apple really does plan to introduce AR glasses at some point in the future (something that has been rumored, but not confirmed), it will need a healthy ecosystem of app developers who know how to make or have already embraced augmented reality apps. Releasing a suite of developer tools for AR on the phone will presumably make it easier to move those apps over to future AR hardware products Apple could make.
IF APPLE DOES EVENTUALLY LAUNCH AR GLASSES, IT’S GOING TO NEED KILLER APPS TO PROVE THAT THEY’RE USEFUL, NOT AWKWARD
The last major pair of AR glasses to hit the market was the ill-fated Google Glass. Google Glass was awkward, made people uncomfortable in public, and even spawned the term “Glassholes.” But all of that may have been forgiven had the actual experience of having contextual information put right in front of your eyes been awesome. In other words: AR glasses are going to need apps so good and so useful that they justify whatever social awkwardness wearing a computer on your face creates.
Will Apple be able to get major app developers to build AR apps for glasses, if and when it gets into glasses? Of course. But there’s also the very real possibility that the breakout app or surprise app for AR glasses would come from a less-established developer, one who wouldn’t have the resources to invest in true 3D AR if it’s as technically complicated as it is now.
Apple has had a long-standing tradition of waiting to jump into a market because of the premise that it will do it — whatever it may be — better. But the company shouldn’t wait any longer to show the world that it’s serious about AR as a platform