Apple Brought AR to Life

By Dan Sung, METRO

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APPLE’S most significant launch of 2017 was not the iPhone X. Nor was it the Watch Series 3. In fact, it wasn’t a device at all but the iOS 11 software — specifically the framework inside it called ARKit, which will change the world as we know it.

ARKit is a set of tools for iPhone app developers, the people who turn pretty gadgets into genuinely useful items. ARKit makes it simpler for them to dream up augmented reality (AR) apps — those which superimpose computer-generated images on top of our view of the real world. It also makes AR work a whole lot better. Chances are you’ve already used augmented reality, whether you know it or not, through Pokémon Go or Snapchat and its animated selfie additions and filters, not to mention the dancing hotdog, which was viewed 1.5billion times over the summer.

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Futuristic dream: Developers at Microsoft HoloLens are pointing the way, while Magic Leap has raised a staggering $1.4bn of backing for its projects

See Metro’s top ARKit apps (below) on the App Store for a taster of how Apple is set to make AR more fun and useful than ever before.

Augmented reality is nothing new but, much like its cousin virtual reality, it’s been waiting for someone to realise its potential. The success of Pokémon Go and its 650 million downloads was a marker of the appetite for AR, and this was nothing sophisticated. With ARKit, your phone can recognise the surfaces of your surroundings and put the virtual objects right on top of your desk or your car, instead of just leaving them floating aimlessly in the air. The iPhone’s dual cameras can sense depth far better, track your every movement and adjust the computer-generated overlays to match in a realistic way thanks to the high-performance A11 processor at the heart of the latest Apple handsets.

More important than the tech itself are the millions of iPhones and iPads already out there with potential AR users just waiting to get going. That’s a very different situation from the last big push for AR, which came courtesy of the Google Glass Project and its prohibitively expensive smart eyewear, its limited applications, its ‘glassholes’ label and the host of bad press around privacy.

‘The fixation that AR is dependent on consumer-grade AR glasses as the essential element for widespread usage is now over,’ says multimedia expert Ken Blakeslee of WebMobility Ventures.

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‘Pokémon Go taught millions of consumers the value of the smartphone screen as a viable experience for AR. Apple has just put in place the platforms for rampant AR development and, with the capabilities of the iPhones 8 and X, everything is in place to finally exploit AR in a way consumers will find comfortable and valuable.’

Since Glass Explorer ended in 2015, Google has learned much about AR and now has a set of software tools for Android called ARCore. Expect an AR app explosion on Google-based smartphones.

But the futuristic dream of smart glasses isn’t dead, it’s just that our way of getting there has changed. According to Blakeslee, the focus on smartphone AR is going to accelerate the investment in AR eyewear that looks good and works perfectly. There are already rumours that Apple is in talks with optics firm Carl Zeiss to make Apple glasses.

Microsoft is trying out a more mixed-reality approach with its oversized, more VR-looking HoloLens headgear. The idea is to turn the space around you into a 3D version of your computer desktop. It takes your pictures, your graphs and your windows off your monitor and throws them out into the real world.

Graphic models of the solar system can float around your table, PowerPoint presentations can rise up from your desk and it’s a lot easier to achieve because none of the computer-generated wizardry is reacting to the world around it. Samsung, Acer, Lenovo and Dell all have HoloLens headgear in the pipeline.

While Apple and Google will create the appetite, Microsoft HoloLens can begin to build the future along with companies like the mysterious Magic Leap, according to co-president of the VR/AR Association, Steve Dann.

‘HoloLens is pointing the way’, he says. ‘Microsoft has been very brave to bring it out early and Magic Leap has had more money pumped into it than any new company in tech ever. A lot of people are betting that it not only works but that it’s going to be relevant for an awful lot of people. We’ve all got our fingers crossed.’

Vision: HoloLens turns space around you into a 3D version of your computer desktop

Magic Leap is the sweet spot in the middle, the name that’s been teasing the idea of super-smooth AR through its next-generation headset since 2016. Video demos of little cartoon characters hiding under objects have been enough to earn the company $1.4bn of backing. Word is that the device is bigger than a normal pair of glasses but smaller than VR goggles and that it projects a ‘light field’ of virtual images directly on to your retinas alongside everything else you normally perceive. Could it be the first company to crack smart glasses?

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‘I’m pretty confident we’ll be wearing smart glasses within the next two or three years, looking slightly oversized but nothing that would be out of place on the street,’ says Dann. ‘After five or ten years they’ll be indistinguishable from normal glasses and people will have forgotten what life was like without augmented reality everywhere we go.’

With so many players in the game, it’s unlikely any company is going to own the space but Apple chief Tim Cook might just be able to look back and say that it was his firm that made AR finally click.

iPhone AR apps to try

IKEA Place (free)

Try before you buy and drop a true-to-scale piece of IKEA furniture into your living room before going to a showroom.

Hair Color by Modiface (£1.99)

Find out what you’d look like as a blonde or redhead. Front, side, back; it tints and tracks the lot.

Fitness AR (£2.99)

Show off your bike ride to your friends. Link it up to Strava to create a 3D tabletop map of your Herculean trail.

The Machines (£4.99)

Apple’s showcase AR gaming fun – a robot battlefield on your very own desk. Your orders, general?