Apple just jumped head-first into augmented reality.
Following months of speculation about what exactly the nature of its ambitions for augmented reality are, the company announced it’s building an AR platform directly into iOS. With ARKit, Apple is for the first time offering developers a suite of tools to make dedicated augmented reality apps for iPhones and iPads.
Like other new iOS 11 features, it will be some time before we see ARKit’s full potential, but Apple demoed a couple augmented reality experiences created with the tech to show a bit of what’s possible.
The flashier of the two demos was the Star Wars HoloChess demo, a callback to the iconic game (that’s actually called Dejarik) from the original 1977 film (it was later shown in The Force Awakens and Rogue One, too).
The game, which did appear to have some official Star Wars branding, allowed you to digitally place the “holographic” chessboard on a surface in front of you and move characters around the board.
The board stays in a fixed location so you can get a closer look at the game by moving the iPad closer to the area of the table where the board has been “placed.”
The second demo was a lot like one of the augmented reality demo we saw from Facebook at its F8 developer conference earlier this year. Place virtual objects — a lamp, a vase, a cup of coffee — on a table and move them around.
For some reason “move digital objects around on a screen” has become the go-to AR demo whether you’re Apple, Facebook or Google. And not even Apple can put enough spin on this type of demo to make it actually seem exciting.
That said, there are a few noteworthy aspects to this. Apple spent a lot of time hyping up the dynamic lighting features of ARKit and a bit of that was on display: tapping the lamp would turn on the light, allowing you to see how the shadows change in real time. It’s subtle for sure, but noticeable.
More realistic shadows may not sound particularly exciting (because they’re not), but it shows how ARKit stands to help developers create much better augmented reality experiences than what was possible before. Even Pokémon Go, the app that put augmented reality on the map last year, will get a lot better thanks to ARKit.
“The digital world will overlay the real world in more detailed and accurate ways and you will be able to interact with Pokémon in a more immersive and life-like fashion,” Niantic wrote in a blog post Monday.
Again, both of these demos were meant to show developers what’s possible, rather than represent fully-fledged consumer-ready apps. What exactly developers will create, outside of games, is another matter.
Apple also talked about an app Ikea is making to help people visualize furniture in their homes before they buy it. Similarly, ARKit apps could be used to virtually try on clothes or makeup or just about anything else you may want to test drive before bringing it home.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s not that different than what we’ve heard before from Google, which has discussed similar use cases for its Tango technology, so far only available in a couple of devices.
Of course, that’s the biggest advantage Apple has with ARKit: it will be available to all iPhones and iPads that can run iOS 11, which is why the company said Monday it stands to own the biggest AR platform in the world.
And that could make all the difference.
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