Apple Takes a Bite of AR at WWDC

The Apple WWDC (worldwide developer’s conference) has dropped several exciting bits of news from the Cupertino cult-favourite company. We’re getting a snazzy new iPad Pro lineup, Siri will become Skynet-smart with iOS 11 and Apple now makes a speaker. For us here at VRS though, every WWDC reopens the hope that Apple may finally throw it’s hat into the VR ring, as it’s been rumoured they’d do for years now.

Instead we got something just as good in the form of the Apple ARkit, an AR SDK that will integrate augmented reality into iOS going forward. So while this piece of news is still hot and sizzling, let’s talk about what it might mean for us regular folk.

Think (a Little) Different

Apple is often touted as being a technologically innovative company, which is at best something that’s half-true. The fact of the matter is that many hit Apple products such as the iPhone, iPod or iPad were not “new” in the sense that no one had thought to do anything like them.

Smartphones, MP3 players and tablet PCs all existed prior to Apple gracing us with their take on each category, so the idea that Apple is this inventive company is one to be taken with a grain of salt.

The Apple Way

What Apple is great at is taking other people’s sucky ideas and turning them into something that not only doesn’t suck, but is great.

Before the iPad, tablet computers were an incoherent mess that no sane person would want to use for more than five minutes. Likewise, it’s easy to forget how comprehensively iOS wiped the floor with Android when it first launched. Despite iOS launching first, giving Google time to polish it up.

It also explains why Apple seems to be so hesitant when others are jumping head first into new technology categories. There’s still no Apple-branded TV and likely we won’t see one. Apple is a company that likes to bide its time and so while Google have put out the Cardboard, Daydream VR and now a standalone HMD, we have nothing from the company of Steves.

Show Me the Money

It’s not too strange. The VR industry is still shaking itself out. For a company that only makes a handful of products in each category, any additional products take away resources from proven sellers.

The thing is, the AR/VR industry is slated to hit a staggering 100 billion by 2024, with the lion’s share going to the far more accessible AR technology. With the success of AR apps such as Pokemon Go on Android and iOS devices, it’s something Apple simply can’t ignore when staple products such as the iPad exhibit flagging sales.

Products like the technically marvellous Zenfone AR must also have Apple hot under the collar no to appear behind the times.

What’s in the Kit?

So what has Apple actually done?

ARkit is a set of developer tools and Apple-made AR technologies that are meant to lessen the load of AR app development on iOS. The point is to relieve developers from reinventing the wheel when it comes to the core technologies behind AR such as machine vision and spatial mapping.

This means that developers can concentrate on things like concepts, mechanics and interfaces, confident of what the AR engine that runs it all can and cannot do.

In a way, this is a little like the baked-in gamepad support on iOS devices. Getting a gamepad to work on Android is a nightmare, because games have to be developed for one specific pad or another. If you have a pad the developers did not cater for you’re out of luck.

On iOS it’s a completely different story. Apple established an MFi standard for gamepads, specifying the buttons and layout needed for certification. In this way developers know what the controller can do and hardware makers also know what needs to be in their product at a minimum.

Essentially ARkit will do something similar on iOS, but to a far greater degree. Inserting itself into the core of AR app development.

Magical?

One of the best features in ARkit is the ability to perform “marker-less” tracking. Usually AR software needs a marker such as a QR code or a specific picture to know where to project the digital content. Otherwise, as with Pokemon Go, it can use a very simplistic method of tracking using the internal gyroscope.

Markerless tracking uses various methods to identify objects in the video stream and keep track of where things are both in the real world and virtual one. If Pokemon Go used this technology the Pokemon would have the ability to jump up on things like tables. You’d also be able to walk around them.

With Google’s Project Tango there’s a whole host of special cameras and spatial sensors that gives the software the info it needs to achieve this magical AR experience. It seems that ARkit just needs what already comes in an iPhone, which is exciting if it turns out to work well.

How did Apple do this? It’s probably mainly due to their acquisition of AR wizards Metaio back in 2015. A lot of proprietary tech flowed into the company then and soon we’ll experience the fruits of that investment.

Eye on the Prize

It makes a lot of sense for Apple to do this. There’s a lot of money in the future of AR and by establishing a platform on its already popular hardware, the company may turn out to be the mainstream AR darling.

Don’t discount hardware such as Apple smart glasses (the iGlasses? Please no.) following somewhere down the line. After all, Siri started out as a lady in your phone, but now she has her own speaker.

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