Win­dow on the world

With ARKit, Ap­ple brings aug­mented re­al­ity to hun­dreds of mil­lions of de­vices overnight

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Ap­ple brings aug­mented re­al­ity to the masses overnight with ARKit

The con­sen­sus has it that aug­mented re­al­ity will have a more dra­matic im­pact on the world than its vir­tual cousin. Freed from cum­ber­some head­sets, and de­signed to ame­lio­rate the real world in­stead of invit­ing users to step into an en­tirely dif­fer­ent one, AR clearly has great po­ten­tial – not just for games, but the world at large. Yet un­til very re­cently, the largest tech com­pany on the planet ap­peared to have only lim­ited in­ter­est in it. Yes, CEO Tim Cook said in 2016 that Ap­ple was in­vest­ing in AR, and ac­knowl­edged it could be “huge”. But it was only at this year’s Ap­ple World­wide De­vel­oper Con­fer­ence (WWDC) this June that the com­pany made its move. It an­nounced ARKit, and made it avail­able im­me­di­ately in the SDK for its new mo­bile op­er­at­ing sys­tem, iOS 11. Since then, progress has been rapid.

Travis Ryan, a co-founder of Sh­effield stu­dio Dumpling De­sign and former staffer at Sumo Dig­i­tal, had binned a con­cept for an AR-pow­ered table­top board game, feel­ing the tech­nol­ogy avail­able at the time sim­ply wasn’t good enough to bring the idea to life. Within two hours of down­load­ing the SDK, Smash Tanks was up and run­ning in Unity. Dave Ran­yard, mean­while, started up his VR/AR ven­ture Dream Re­al­ity In­ter­ac­tive. His team be­gan work on an ARKit game, a play­ful riff on mini-golf named Orbu, as soon as the tech­nol­ogy was avail­able. It will launch in Novem­ber.

Other de­vel­op­ers at a re­cent Ap­ple show­case in Lon­don told sim­i­lar sto­ries: of a tool that sim­ply ex­isted one day, worked im­me­di­ately and has yielded swift re­sults, its fea­tures able to be im­ple­mented at speed, then put on the App Store on the day of iOS 11’s re­lease in Septem­ber in front of an au­di­ence of hun­dreds of mil­lions. This, more than any­thing, is ARKit’s se­cret sauce. Ap­ple may, tech­ni­cally, have been beaten to the AR punch by Google, whose Tango plat­form grad­u­ated from the Google X in­cu­ba­tor in 2012, and launched two years later. But Tango was too am­bi­tious, too high-end, and so only ever sup­ported by a hand­ful of de­vices. In three years, only two smart­phones ever sup­ported it, the age-old An­droid prob­lem of hard­ware frag­men­ta­tion hold­ing back promis­ing tech­nol­ogy be­cause of the vast ar­ray of de­vices on which Google’s open-source OS is used. The com­pany has since an­nounced its in­ten­tion to re­tire Tango, re­plac­ing it with ARCore, a more scaleable so­lu­tion re­vealed two months after ARKit, which Google says will be com­pat­i­ble with around 100 mil­lion de­vices.

Ap­ple, by con­trast, holds iOS tightly close. The soft­ware only runs on its own hard­ware, and whether by ac­ci­dent or de­sign it has been qui­etly build­ing a fam­ily of de­vices that are ideal for mo­bile aug­mented re­al­ity. Ac­celerom­e­ters, a gy­ro­scope, GPS and pow­er­ful cam­eras com­bine to form a de­vice that knows its pre­cise po­si­tion and ori­en­ta­tion in the world; the new, high-end iPhone X throws face track­ing into the de­sign space too. While it’s easy to be cyn­i­cal about the an­nual it­er­a­tion of iPhone and iPad cam­eras the end­less arms race of smart­phone lens power means ARKit can sense the light tem­per­a­ture of a room, and dy­nam­i­cally light AR ob­jects ac­cord­ingly. The re­sult is a fam­ily of pow­er­ful mo­bile AR de­vices, that are easy to de­velop for, and are in hun­dreds of mil­lions of homes and pock­ets. Not bad.

Clearly there is enor­mous po­ten­tial in ARKit, then, but there are still hur­dles to be over­come. Cur­rently, while the tech­nol­ogy is an able per­former on a hor­i­zon­tal axis, it strug­gles on the ver­ti­cal. And oc­clu­sion is fre­quently men­tioned by de­vel­op­ers as a prob­lem in need of solv­ing. It’s one that raises its head while we play Arise, a Cli­max Stu­dios game which has us wan­der­ing around the perime­ter of the game world, angling the de­vice to line up plat­forms for a dinky pro­tag­o­nist to walk over. When some­one walks past in the back­ground, the track­ing briefly goes hay­wire.

Yet these prob­lems are noth­ing that can’t be solved, pro­vid­ing Ap­ple is in ARKit for the long haul. That will de­pend on its early suc­cess – and while games will play a part in that, it is down to the wider app-de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity to prove the ob­vi­ous po­ten­tial of the tech­nol­ogy. The high­light of the day is ViewRanger, an AR route-find­ing app that over­lays a bread­crumb trail for your cho­sen path onto the cam­era feed, high­light­ing points of in­ter­est and giv­ing in­for­ma­tion about them. While seem­ingly aimed at ram­blers, it’s al­ready show­ing the breadth of AR’s ap­peal: brew­eries have signed up to sug­gest walking routes around coun­try pubs, for in­stance, while search-and-res­cue teams have used it to help pin­point their quarry in re­mote ar­eas. After that, a game of minigolf on a rug feels a lit­tle in­signif­i­cant. But that merely speaks to the vast spec­trum of pos­si­bil­i­ties in what, if han­dled cor­rectly, could be not just a game-chang­ing tech­nol­ogy, but a world-chang­ing one, too.

Clearly there is enor­mous po­ten­tial in ARKit, but there are still hur­dles to be over­come

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