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Augmented reality on the iPhone isn't Apple's endgame, it's a means to an end

Posted: , by Kaloyan C.

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Augmented reality on the iPhone isn't Apple's endgame, it's a means to an end

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 reality disaster 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? 

Looking Ahead

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.

An Apple patent application showing a possible look for the rumored headset

An Apple patent application showing a possible look for the rumored headset

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.

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posted on 11 Aug 2017, 08:38

1. PhoneCritic (Posts: 965; Member since: 05 Oct 2011)

It needs to be given time. Right now, as it stands, the only practical uses I see are the ruler and measurement tools plus some sort of ingress style game. However, it is also most likely to be over shadowed by some other brilliant and practical idea that comes along. All the rage was VR an now AR but I have a feeling something bigger is on the horizon. But until then we need to give this time.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 13:21 5

13. sgodsell (Posts: 4899; Member since: 16 Mar 2013)

The real end game is MR (mixed reality). Because as it stands today AR is great for some use cases, and VR is great for others. So anyone saying that AR is going to be taking over or is better than VR. Honestly doesn't know what they are talking about. As a matter of fact we are going to see some VR/AR headsets going to arrive later this year. They are a full VR headset with cameras in front, so they can do AR as well. Like a hololens, only you get a VR headsets FOV. Basically you are getting the best of both worlds in one headset. Hence MR.

posted on 15 Aug 2017, 02:19

18. HansP (Posts: 167; Member since: 16 Oct 2011)

I agree. It seems like Apple is stuck in ten-years-ago on this. Augmented Reality is a dead end. Too limited use case scenarios, almost no immersion at all.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 09:19

2. path45th (Posts: 48; Member since: 11 Sep 2016)

This would be nice if there were a holographic screen or projector.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 09:27

3. RebelwithoutaClue (Posts: 3584; Member since: 05 Apr 2013)

I think it's awesome they managed to use the sensors found on any iPhone to place objects in real space, where Tango needs all those sensors. But the wording: a fairly high amount of hardware power to function, ARKit requires literally nothing more than an already existing iPhone, sounds like it needs some beast of a CPU on Android but not on iOS. The SD 652 is hardly considered beastly hardware power and it's not known how much computational power it needs from the iPhone.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 09:37

4. cmdacos (Posts: 714; Member since: 01 Nov 2016)

While certainly ARKit will bring ar to the masses, from what i understand android ar is more in depth then what Apple is trying to achieve at least when presented on their legacy devices (maybe different with the 3d sensing capabilities on the newer planned devices). Tango has spacial recognition that allows an ar visual to be placed permanently and in memory so if you turn the camera away and back the item remains where it was. From what I have heard of ARKit it seems like if you turn away from the visual it is either lost or no longer positioned the same.
As I understand, the Tango sensors are the basis for deeper AR.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 10:07

6. toukale (Posts: 127; Member since: 10 Jun 2015)

I would not take AR on a 2015 iPhone device as the basis for Apple ARkit ambitions. From everything I've been reading about it, Apple has done so to increase the number of supported devices in the hundred of millions to attract developer supports. ARKit was build with the iPhone 8 and beyond in mind. Just look at the front notch on the iPhone 8 and count the number of sensors on that thing.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 10:49

8. cmdacos (Posts: 714; Member since: 01 Nov 2016)

100% agree. And Apple could move this along exponentially faster then Google is currently. In its current form though it's slightly more enhanced than Snapchat AR.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 10:14

7. toukale (Posts: 127; Member since: 10 Jun 2015)

I do think ARKit will help tango phones sell a ton more as a result. It's like the saying, "a rising tide lifts all boats."

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 10:06 1

5. MarvzIsFallen (Posts: 19; Member since: 11 Aug 2017)

Android users will be jealous once official ios 11 deploys.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 10:53 2

9. RebelwithoutaClue (Posts: 3584; Member since: 05 Apr 2013)

Hardly, i dont care for AR at all, especially on my phone. Only thing i am interested in is the Enterprise use of AR and many companies are already invested in either google glasses or microsoft hololens

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 11:08

10. toukale (Posts: 127; Member since: 10 Jun 2015)

The current google glass is not an AR capable device, it does not count.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 18:01 1

15. RebelwithoutaClue (Posts: 3584; Member since: 05 Apr 2013)

You have no idea what AR stands for. It most definitely is augmented reality, but not mixed reality like Hololens for example. And especially in the enterprise Google Glasses version of AR will be very important.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 11:37 3

12. TechieXP1969 (Posts: 14633; Member since: 25 Sep 2013)

No! We won't.

I have been tinkering with iOS 11 beta and its not impressive IMO.

Why be jealous when we've had similar in some form or fashion?

Android users never have to be jealous of anything Apple does....ever!

Apple isn't doing anything no one else hasn't done yet.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 11:36

11. TechieXP1969 (Posts: 14633; Member since: 25 Sep 2013)

The problem with AR is the same with VR.

On a phone the tech is simply to limited to enjoy.

I was excited for VR, until I tried it. I now have Gear VR's just sitting doing nothing.

They are boring. Even though I did watch a movie, to sit with a heavy pair of glasses on yoru face for almost 2 hours is grueling.

Apps are overpriced, offer limited usage and capability and offer nothing great in the experience.

Its just hype with no future.

Microsoft's Hololens is the future and I can't wait!

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 13:55 2

14. sgodsell (Posts: 4899; Member since: 16 Mar 2013)

Do you honestly believe VR has no future. Clearly then you really never tried VR then. Because VR is better for some things like an immersive experience, and AR is better for others, like interacting with the real world. Hololens is cool, but it's limited 35 degrees FOV definitely detracts from the experience. The real end game is MR (mixed reality). So you will get the immersive experience that VR gives with its much higher FOV display. And cameras in front of the headset will give you the AR part. So now you have the best of both worlds.

Games are a big part of getting people over to new platform experiences. So sure AR games will be cool, but VR games are also cool. For instance when I play "Need for speed VR", I don't want to see the background of my current location. Or if I am playing a game in outer space I don't want to see a coffee tablet or the person next to me while playing. The part where you said "VR offers nothing great in the experience". Now I am truly wondering if you really did try VR, because when I am driving a car in VR, then I can just move my head from side to side to look out the side windows of the car, or check out the side mirrors to see the other vehicles. It's the closest thing to driving a real car, which AR cannot give you that experience. But VR certainly does.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 21:06

16. jacky899 (Posts: 47; Member since: 16 May 2017)

I'm really excited about Apple's AR on the IPhone 8. This is one of the reasons why I might get the Iphone 8 over the Note 8 despite the fact that I want the stylus and larger screen on the Note.

posted on 11 Aug 2017, 23:55

17. Xilam (Posts: 124; Member since: 20 Jul 2017)

I wouldn't trade off a stylus for an AR experience which would be at it's infancy in the beginning.. Yes, developers are making number of apps taking advantage of the ARKit, but it's just better AR (less shake, proper surface detection, and accurate scaling and ambient lighting), but that's all as far as improvement from what I've seen. But if you NEED a stylus get Samsung Note, skip AR hype this year - knowing Apple - they usually introduce a new trend well, but best use of it comes about a year later.

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