From the iPhone 8 to iOS 11, Apple’s got no shortage of big launches coming in the next few weeks. But the one with the biggest long-term potential for Apple is one that Tim Cook says makes him want to “yell out and scream” with excitement.
That product is ARKit, the augmented reality platform Apple unveiled this year at WWDC. Here’s why it’s going to be massively important for Apple.
First, a caveat of sorts. While Cupertino enjoys a long history of tech breakthroughs, a handful of much-hyped misfires in the past few years have fueled skepticism about Apple innovation. The underlying technology of new products and features — like, for instance, the Touch Bar for last year’s MacBook Pro — often sounds promising.
However, Apple’s recent reluctance to push ideas as far as they can go sometimes leads to disappointing results. Apple framed platforms like HomeKit and iBeacons as the next big thing, but they now seem like afterthoughts.
That could lead observers to think augmented reality will become another forgotten Apple innovation, destined to be looked back on as a curiosity like the Pippin (remember Apple’s 1990s games console?) years from now. But I don’t think so.
iOS 11 will give a massive boost to AR
Many “failed” Apple innovations required hardware upgrades — or at least a subscription to a service. ARKit does not.
That makes it something of a rarity among companies working in augmented reality. And that gives Apple an healthy advantage.
ARKit isn’t tethered to a single device like Microsoft’s HoloLens, or restricted to a few devices like Google’s Tango. Google has recently announced that it is pursuing a similar strategy to ARKit with its new ARCore platform, but this is still going to have to deal with the fragmented Android hardware ecosystem.
Upon the release of iOS 11, ARKit-powered apps — on the other hand — will instantly become available to millions of iPhone and iPad owners around the world for free. There’s a gigantic gulf between that kind of instant availability and the small set of moneyed early adopters willing to shell out $3,000 on a HoloLens.
Apple has always been a company interested in democratizing technologies. Augmented reality will join personal computers (the Apple II), typography (the Macintosh), desktop publishing (PageMaker), running a small business (VisiCalc), video editing (FireWire), medical research (ResearchKit) and software distribution (the App Store) on Apple’s hit list.
In all these areas, Apple helped lower the barriers to access. When ARKit launches, augmented reality will be employed by app-makers for everything from fun games and everyday utilities to teaching complicated skills by overlaying instructional information.
ARKit: A big opportunity for developers
From a developer perspective, the debut of ARKit could be the closest many will get to the gold rush mentality of the early App Store days — when a neat idea and being first to market will earn big rewards. It opens up a whole new toolset for developers that no SDK since the original app development one has been able to match.
Just as the early App Store hosted an unhealthy number of fart apps, not all AR apps will prove useful, of course. Unimaginative companies undoubtedly will jump on the technology to create Snapchat-like apps that superimpose wings or funny hats onto photos and the like. But others will create genuinely useful tools for a wide variety of audiences.
We know this because we’re already seeing them. ARKit demos have shown off virtual tape measures that can accurately measure the distance between two points. Other ARKit apps use the technology for mapping, transposing 2D map data onto a three-dimensional image for directions or to highlight areas of interest.
Ikea is using ARKit to showcase how furniture will look in your house before you buy it. And ModiFace, a Toronto startup, is developing apps to show how different makeup will look on a person’s face. Jennifer Tidy, vice president of partnerships at ModiFace, told Cult of Mac AR is a “major game-changer” for engaging consumers online and in stores.
“ARKit makes things more mainstream for AR,” Tidy said. “It is easy for the general public to access and for developers to use.”
Imagine being able to quickly and easily see how a new piece of hardware, from a dishwasher to a set of smart lights, works just by installing an accompanying app and then aiming your phone at the hardware in question. Or going to a restaurant and seeing how a particular meal will look before you order it. ARKit and a bit of ingenuity will make all this available.
Beyond iPhone: The future of Apple AR and VR
Beyond ARKit in iOS 11, Apple is reportedly looking to develop a standalone virtual reality headset, with hundreds of engineers currently working on the project. The company scooped up a number of augmented-reality companies, including Metaio, and hired some big names in VR and AR.
David Goldman, VP of marketing at Lumus, a company that’s been developing and making optics for AR for more than 16 years, said creating such wearables is important.
“AR eyewear represents the next interface for connectivity,” he said. “Initially, AR wearables will likely be peripherals to mobile handsets, but over time we will see them become the primary device we use to communicate, work, research, shop and consume entertainment.”
Rolling out ARKit apps powered by mobile devices is just the first step in the AR revolution, according to Goldman. “Most consumers will prefer a hands-free experience to holding out their phone in front of them,” he said.
Whether AR headsets will become a mass-market product remains to be seen. Introducing a service on the iPhone and then later rolling it out on a piece of dedicated hardware isn’t unprecedented, since that strategy is exactly what Apple pursued with Siri. Apple’s AI assistant, which debuted on the iPhone 4s, will get showcased on the forthcoming HomePod smart speaker.
ARKit is just the beginning
For Apple to move forward with a dedicated AR or VR headset, ARKit must become a big success. But with Cupertino relying more than ever on its services business to bring in money, the company clearly has a vested interest in making Apple-branded augmented reality a hit.
With just a few weeks of demos from developers, we’re already convinced. And this is before we’ve seen anything from the heavy hitters, with serious budgets behind them. Remember how the App Store opened up the possibilities of the iPhone by spawning thousands of “killer apps” in 2008? That’s what ARKit is going to do in 2017.
We can’t wait to see how this unfolds. It’s gonna be ARsome (sorry about that!)