This week at WWDC, Apple unveiled its ARKit augmented reality platform that enables app developers to use detailed camera and sensor data to map digital objects in 3D space, more immersive than previous 2D camera overlays. With ARKit, Apple can begin to compete with Google, which currently dominates phone-based AR. The move may also signal that Apple will build AR glasses. Many industry sources believe that Apple plans to integrate augmented reality features into its 10th anniversary iPhone and wants to develop a global AR platform.
The Wall Street Journal points out that Apple chief executive Tim Cook has been a strong advocate of the technology, which he says is less isolating than virtual reality. According to eMarketer, about 40 million people in the U.S. will use augmented reality this year, up 30 percent from 2016; the total is expected to rise to 54 million in 2019.
In the AR field, Apple will now also compete not just with Google’s Tango AR platform, but with headsets and/or tools from Microsoft, Magic Leap, Facebook and Snapchat.
“It’s a seminal event in the journey toward AR that Apple’s come out and shipped something,” said computer vision startup 6D.ai co-founder Matt Miesnieks. He is among many who believe that the potential to reach Apple’s more than 680 million iPhone users will encourage developers to use ARKit, which also doesn’t require separate hardware or software.
IKEA International and Lego are already working on AR apps using ARKit. At ARKit’s debut, Wingnut AR, director Peter Jackson’s AR studio, showed an AR experience developed with the new platform. Miesnieks also notes that iPhone users could share AR images through its iMessage service and that the sensors and algorithms Apple developed for ARKit means it could also develop AR glasses.
The Verge reports that ARKit works “though a technique called visual-inertial odometry,” which uses the iPhone or iPad camera and motion sensors to find points in the environment and track them, pinning objects to one point and then “realistically changing the scale and perspective.” One of Apple’s advantages is that ARKit enables the developers of independent iOS apps to add augmented reality, thus spreading the use of its AR platform.
ARKit does have limits, in that “it doesn’t transform the iPhone or iPad’s basic tracking capabilities,” but it does appear to have “excellent object scaling” and “also uses a fraction of the phone’s CPU, so it could make AR less of a resource drain.” And, The Verge adds, “now that Apple is officially in the augmented reality game, it’s less of a leap to full VR.”