Window on the world
With ARKit, Apple brings augmented reality to hundreds of millions of devices overnight
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