Re­al­ity check

Aug­mented re­al­ity is get­ting the tech world ex­cited – how does Ap­ple stack up against its ri­vals?

Mac Format - - CONTENTS - writ­ten by ALEX BLAKE

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.

Huge op­por­tu­nity

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.

Aug­mented Re­al­ity LEGO? Kiss good­bye to the tor­ment of that one lost ‘re­ally im­por­tant’ piece!

AR tech can bring lit­er­a­ture and more to life: see The Very Hun­gry Cater­pil­lar gorge right in front of your eyes.

There were pri­vacy is­sues with Google Glass, and Google has since rethought its ap­proach to AR.

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