Simon says… AR you ready for the future?

Augmented vs Virtual

Apple previewed their next major software shift at WWDC 2017 in the form of ‘ARKit’… so what is it exactly? Let’s start with an overview of two major focus areas in today’s technology: Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). 

In recent years, the advancements in AR and VR have allowed both app and game developers a far more promising platform to expand their products. The impending ‘future tech’ aspect of VR has existed for decades, but appeared to be held back and often dismissed due to tech limitations and half-baked attempts around the late 80s and throughout the 90s - I’m looking at you Nintendo Virtual Boy. Unfortunately, the current VR requirement of a dedicated and often bulky headset has received mixed reactions and its reduced sense of accessibility struggles to resonate with a mainstream non-gaming audience.

On the other side, there is AR - and this is where Apple are placing their bets. While we saw an impressive Star Wars VR demo at WWDC, it was ARKit that sent developers into a frenzy. AR made itself known to a general audience at the turn of the century, but like all new technology it has existed in experimental forms for far longer. While both AR and VR share common ground, the easiest way to distinguish the two is in the user experience, and this is the reasoning behind Apple’s choice to move in the AR direction:

  • Augmented Reality 
    Uses a device’s camera to overlay animated and interactive 3D elements relative to the environment around the user.
  • Virtual Reality 
    Uses a dedicated headset to take the user out of their own environment completely, and into a virtual interactive 3D environment.

The clear advantages of AR is that it can be made available instantly via app / software updates to current devices (such as iPhone and iPad), and that the user can always gauge where they're physically situated thus removing any sense of fear and disorientation (a major pain point of VR). In a nutshell, ARKit is THE development platform to create AR experiences and use them to easily enhance apps and games. Google have their equivalent in the way of ‘Project Tango’, which while impressive hasn’t garnered the same enthusiasm from devs that ARKit has.

ARKit boasts highly accurate scale / proportion (down to mm), real-time shadows and tonal variation, low resource requirements (~10% CPU) and increased spatial awareness. It’s all the elements of AR that matter the most to a broad audience: more realism, more interaction, minimal loading.

 

Just show me some dang AR already!

As referenced in Episode 30 of our podcast, a go-to place for curated ARKit content spawned itself shortly after the WWDC debut called ‘Made with ARKit’. If you haven't seen these already, I’ve taken the liberty of providing some quick snippet examples of some standout AR test clips…

Aside from the platform, what will Apple do with AR?

This is the biggest mystery. Nic may not be so sure, but I still see the possibility of ‘Apple Glasses’ (not iGlasses, lol). Tim Cook put forward a valid point in saying that users shouldn’t have to wear glasses if their vision is not impaired. For me, the line is blurred if you consider the potential of Apple Glasses as a fashion item. Trends come and go, but you can’t deny the distinct resurgence of thick rim glasses over the past several years; demonstrating the influence of fashion over need.

I feel like Apple could go the way of Apple Watch and provide users something that is technologically advanced AND stylish; in many colours, different materials and varied price points. Google got in early but unfortunately that while slim they stand out in a way that looking like a cyborg becomes a hindrance rather than an advantage. Maybe Apple Glasses will come to fruition by… 2020 (hey, I’m getting in early with the vision puns).

Of course, the downside to inconspicuous design will be the fact that your friends, family and public around you may have no idea what you’re looking at or interacting with. For example, imagine if I could see a giant golden statue of Craig Federighi with my seemingly normal looking pair of Apple Glasses, while standing several metres away could be Nic wondering what I’m gawking at and why I’m muttering words like “just too damn suave” and “he’s got the gold shoes on”. It’s a tough one!

Then, I haven’t even delved into how Apple Glasses could work for people that actually need glasses (like myself). Do you acquire overlay lenses? Where will the tech integrate with your current frames? Could Apple go as far as contact lenses… I certainly doubt the latter. I also thought about the potential of Apple Glasses replacing 3D glasses in cinemas. Again, it’s the biggest mystery and it poses quite an exciting future with a product that may never even exist. 

For 2017 we have ARKit / iOS 11 due in September, an IKEA AR app launch, potential new AR capabilities (eg. 3D selfies) in the long-awaited ‘iPhone 8’ AND an expectation for some major ‘wow’ moments from whatever developers can cook up!

 

Simon Said

Apple have the uncanny ability to take new technologies, fine-tune it / ’solve it’, and deliver a clear product vision offering ease-of-use and seamless integration. It’s one of many reasons why I’m such a keen enthusiast. Apple are serious on AR, and the developer tools and performance provided with ARKit is not some passing phase. At this stage we have more questions than answers regarding dedicated AR hardware, so expect more discussion in this space in our podcast

At some stage Apple will perfect the balance between AR and real-life interaction, whether in glasses form or not. I’m next-level keen on new iOS apps to try out, and so like Reggie said himself: my body is ready!


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