Augmented reality is getting the tech world excited – how does Apple stack up against its rivals?
Apple doesn’t usually spill the beans on its future plans, but there’s one topic that Tim Cook just can’t help gushing about. That topic is augmented reality, also known as AR. It’s “a big idea like the smartphone,” he says. “When I think about the big things, I think about AR,” he muses, somewhat philosophically. And he’s so excited by it that he just wants to “yell out and scream.”
Having a CEO so enamoured with AR augurs well for its future on iPhone. But there are plenty of other reasons why Apple’s iOS platform could be the ideal springboard for the tech.
There’s a huge appetite for AR among consumers. AR game Pokémon Go caused a worldwide sensation when it launched, and has been downloaded over 500 million times since it came out in July 2016. And when Apple launched its ARKit framework for developers, the internet was awash with AR creations.
The potential financial rewards of such a popular platform are huge, with some analysts stating that AR could generate up to $200 billion in revenues over the next decade. There are savings to be made as well – General Electric’s Jeff Immelt believes that augmented reality could free up $50 billion a year for industrial firms alone through improved productivity.
It’s not hard to see why Apple chose to get involved in developing an AR platform. But what is it about Apple products that makes them the best place for it?
For one thing, it’s clear that Apple’s latest iPhones – the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X – have been designed to be AR trailblazers. That’s due in no small part to the new A11 Bionic chip inside the phones. The chip’s CPU will deal with world tracking in AR apps, the image signal processor (ISP) will handle lighting estimation, while the on-chip GPU (the first to be designed by Apple) generates digital images. And with its advanced front-facing camera and face-tracking abilities, the iPhone X is set to take that capability further. At the iPhone X launch event, Phil Schiller described it as “the first iPhone really created for augmented reality.”
As well as that, for any AR platform to really take off, it has to make it easy for people to try it out. Perhaps the most compelling reason why Apple is so well placed when it comes to AR is because it does exactly that. If you bought an iOS device within the last couple of years, you’ll almost certainly be able to give AR apps a go. That’s because ARKit runs on any iPhone from the SE and 6s up to the iPhone X; it’ll also work on any version of the iPad Pro, as well as the 9.7-inch iPad. There’s no need to buy any extra hardware to get going – it just works.
It takes two to Tango
Let’s contrast that to the current situation on Android, where Google’s own AR system, Project Tango, requires phone makers to include specific hardware in their devices in the form of infrared depth perception sensors. Project Tango launched three years ago, but the Android market is so fragmented that it has struggled to really get going. Google has to design something that will work on as many Android devices as possible – an almost impossible task, given the level of variance that can often entail. In fact, there are only two Android phones that currently support Project Tango: the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and the Asus ZenFone AR.
Given Project Tango’s struggles, Google is releasing its own answer to ARKit called ARCore, which works with devices’ existing
hardware. But even if Google could get all the different Android phone makers to develop a unified piece of AR software that would work on all Android devices, there’s still the issue of wildly varying camera quality across the range of Android phones, plus differing screen resolutions and internal specs – some of which simply wouldn’t be good enough for an immersive, impressive AR offering.
Of those numerous drawbacks, the biggest hurdle is camera quality, according to former Samsung engineer and current augmented reality enthusiast Matt Miesnieks. “The reason Android can’t compete with ARKit is that the original equipment manufacturers would need to effectively standardise their camera [systems],” he said. There are no signs of that happening any time soon.
Here’s another example from Google: Daydream, the company’s virtual reality (VR) platform. It had a small launch catalogue, and few phones could run it. Now, a year on from launch, it’s been hyped up but hasn’t lived up to expectations. Because Google has little say in the hardware that Daydream will run on, it’s relying on third party vendors to make the platform work. That’s a very risky approach, and very different from that taken by Apple.
That’s the closed ecosystem. It’s had its fair share of critics over the years, but AR is one area where it’s beneficial. Being able to control and integrate both hardware and software really gives Apple an advantage over Android. For one thing, ARKit uses iPhones’ existing gyroscopes and cameras, which has allowed Apple to tailor the platform to its own hardware, knowing it’ll work without a hitch.
Closed system benefits
For Apple, there’s no need to worry about optimising the ARKit platform for countless different combinations of cameras, hardware setups and versions of the iOS operating system; it only needs to focus on a small range of options. Rather than being forced into a reactive approach à la Google – surveying the Android landscape and stoically trying to make its platform work with as many devices as it can – Apple can be proactive, actively designing both its devices and iOS to be completely compatible with ARKit. Google is having to play catch up, whereas Apple can set the pace of the entire industry.
The certainty provided by Apple’s closed ecosystem also benefits those on the other side of the fence – the developers. AR app developers know that not only do they not need to worry about coding their products for supplementary hardware, but they can code for the iPhones that people already have in their pockets and their apps will still work.
For Argentinian studio Dift Collective, it was a no-brainer. The developers looked at releasing apps for Project Tango, but haven’t done so – but they’ve made several apps for ARKit. According to Charly De Venezia, Dift Collective’s head of operations, “For us the main step forward is the distribution,”
Apple can set the pace of the entire augmented reality industry
something that, with its closed, integrated approach, Apple excels at. Given the sheer breadth of Android devices out there, “it would require a huge effort to take [our app] to Android and make it market-ready,” he says.
Even if only half of the iOS userbase gets iOS 11 (thus giving them access to ARKit), that’s still around 500 million devices that ARKit developers can potentially reach. And we know that the uptake of new versions of iOS is generally a lot higher than that – Apple estimates that 89% of all iOS devices have been updated to iOS 10, for example. Conversely, only around 15% of Android devices are on the latest Nougat version of the operating system.
Taking the lead
Apple has a sizeable lead ahead of its rivals when it comes to providing a compelling AR platform. Part of that stems from its decision to utilise the hardware that its users already have, rather than requiring them to purchase a new phone in order to use it – that’s a hurdle that, not unreasonably, has been too high for most Android manufacturers.
Whether Google can catch up when it releases ARCore in the winter will be an interesting development to follow. The firm says it’s aiming to get ARCore in the hands of up to 100 million Android users, and is now working with manufacturers like
Asus and LG to make that happen. But doing that will be far from easy, given the aforementioned wild variance in the hardware capabilities of Android phones. Google promised similarly lofty targets for Daydream, and they have yet to be met.
Johny Srouji, Senior Vice President of Hardware Technologies at Apple, says that the company plans out its internal chips three years in advance. That means that Apple was working on the A11 Bionic chip (and thus, by extension, an AR-capable iPhone) when it started shipping the iPhone 6. That ability to create long-term plans and spend those three years perfecting the integration of hardware and software is a vital asset to Apple, and something that its rivals can’t hope to match.
Here’s one final benefit for ARKit: many people will buy an iPhone whether or not they care about AR, therefore almost accidentally entering the AR world. They don’t have to expend energy on it (like buying a separate headset or new phone); it’s just there on the phone, waiting to be discovered. It’s a much lower barrier to entry for users, which can only work in ARKit’s favour.
Google is aiming to get ARCore in the hands of up to 100 million Android users
ARKit comes as part of iOS 11, allowing you to experience AR apps on your iOS device.
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