Apple’s latest hardware and software initiatives should bolster one of its weakest areas, graphics support, says Brianna wu
Apple’s serious boost to its graphics technologies has Brianna Wu excited.
Picture walking into a business event and having everyone’s names and job titles displayed on a virtual name tag. Or having a virtual Nerf war in your office and never having to pick up darts. Or even capturing Pokémon in the real world – not staring at your phone, but seeing Pikachu as if he were real.
All this sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. It’s called “augmented reality,” using computers to add information and graphics to what you see. For years, we’ve had hints Apple was working on an AR product - and at this year’s WWDC it all but announced it. 2017 is the year Apple went all-in on nextgeneration graphics.
For years in this column, I’ve expressed frustration at Apple’s commitment to 3D technology. It has always been willing to settle for “good but not great.” When an iPhone game is made with Unity or Unreal, that’s largely because Apple’s development tools aren’t great for 3D games. Every time you can’t buy a game on Steam because it’s not made for MacOS, it’s because of Apple’s lukewarm commitment to 3D.
But all that’s about to change. The most exciting news to come out of WWDC was the iMac Pro: a beast of a machine in Space Gray. The iMac Pro comes with a killer display, a ridiculous number of cores, and powerful graphics capabilities. Many tech journalists raised their eyebrows at it, not understanding who it was made for – but it makes perfect sense to any 3D professional.
The iMac Pro is a dream machine for the CPU-intensive work of building 3D game levels and art assets. Most games calculate lighting effects ahead of time, which can take days to finish on a traditional Mac. The 18-core iMac Pro monster could chew For years in this column, I’ve expressed frustration at Apple’s commitment to 3D
through that work in a matter of minutes. Until now, it was difficult to develop 3D games on a Mac. That won’t be the case for much longer.
The other huge news to come out of WWDC got little mention in the keynote that the consumer press covered, but was covered in depth during Apple’s “State of the Union,” an engineering-centric talk for developers – meaning most journalists didn’t even see it. Apple is using its Thunderbolt 3 technology to let you augment your Mac’s graphical power with an external GPU.
but what about VR, the hot technology trend of the moment? Well, developers can buy the $599 virtual reality development kit today through Apple’s developer program. You can take a Mac laptop, plug it into the VRKit, and start developing virtual reality games immediately using the HTC Vive headset.
If you’ve never experienced the Vive, it is stunning technology. You place two sensors in a room, which wirelessly track your headset and controllers. My favorite Vive game is Space Pirate Trainer, an arcade game where you dodge and shoot endless waves of attack drones. It’s an addictive blast, and makes you feel like you’re in an action movie.
Of course, VR games have proven themselves to be mostly a fad - failing to make significant money or catch on with the public. That’s why the clues that Apple is working on AR instead of VR are so promising. Augmented reality doesn’t obscure the world around you - it adds to it.
Enter ARKit, a powerful technology which Apple demoed at WWDC. ARKit uses the dual cameras of high-end Apple iOS devices to calculate depth and use it in a scene. Apple demoed a Lego Batman game where you aimed an iPhone at a table, seeing a virtual Lego world. You could walk around a virtual Batmobile, explode bricks, and trigger animations of Lego Batman.
ARKit is a brilliant strategy for Apple because it won’t require users to buy AR glasses
ARKit is a brilliant strategy for Apple because it won’t require users to buy AR glasses - you can see the content with your phone. This will enable most consumers to be introduced to the idea without spending a dime, while allowing dedicated consumers to purchase a more seamless experience.
Apple’s other big bet on graphics is Metal 2, which promises to address some of the persistent graphics deficiencies on macOS. One of the biggest problems with gaming on the Mac is the poor performance compared to Windows. Metal 2 takes significant steps to address this, trying to reduce the need for older technologies such as OpenGL.
For years, Apple’s graphics tech has been mediocre at best. But this year’s WWDC demonstrated the company’s newfound commitment, with completely overhauled and reinvented graphics systems. From hardware through software to development tools, Apple settled for nothing but revolutionizing what was possible.
If you’re interested in developing AR products, my suggestion is to place all your bets on Apple.
The iMac Pro will be a dream come true for game developers working with 3D.
Apple’s External Graphics Development Kit, announced at WWDC, includes a Thunderbolt 3 enclosure and a graphics card.