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Apple shows off new AR apps just as Google launches ARCore

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The AR platform wars have officially commenced

The Very Hungry Caterpillar in AR, by Touch Press
Apple, Inc.

Ever since Apple announced ARKit at its annual developers conference earlier this summer, the app-making community has enthusiastically shown off what it has been able to make with the new framework for augmented reality apps. ARKit hasn’t even officially launched yet, and already we’ve seen demos of AR fidget spinners, floating cats, and fancy car configurators on iPhones.

Serious, groundbreaking stuff, right?

But it’s sometimes the fun, toy-like technologies that give way to more serious use cases, which is probably why Apple seems to determined to show off other demonstrations of AR apps that will roll out with iOS 11 next month. Half a dozen app developers gathered on Apple’s campus in Cupertino, Calif. yesterday to demo their upcoming AR apps and talk about their development processes, including big brand names like Ikea, The Food Network, AMC TV, Giphy, and more.

Some app developers, like UK-based Climax Studios and Brooklyn-based Touch Press, talked about how relatively easy it was to create an ARKit app, sometimes in just six to eight weeks. Many talked about the technical capabilities that have been unlocked with ARKit.

But almost all of the developers there said the same thing: it’s Apple’s giant audience, its many millions of iPhone and iPad users, that they think could be the real game-changer in AR. Apple’s pre-arranged gathering of AR app-makers also occurred just as Google is launching ARCore, a new platform for AR app developers that could expand Google’s AR reach in a significant way. If there was ever a moment that marked the real start of the mobile AR platform wars, it’s probably now, and all before the fall hardware season has even begun.

Ikea was on hand at Apple yesterday, and showed off a new AR app for iOS called Ikea Place. It’s a riff on other furniture try-on apps we’ve already seen in AR, whether on Google’s Tango AR platform or in 2D furniture apps. You open up the Ikea app on the iPhone, use the phone’s camera to measure the space around you, and “place” an Ikea furniture item in front of you. You can walk up to the item, get a sense of its size, see materials and texture, and in a future version of the app, you’ll even be able to tap on a virtual sofa to see how big it is when it expands to become a sofa bed.

Ikea Place AR app
Apple, Inc.

Michael Valdsgaard, Ikea’s head of digital transformation, said that the company has been working on 2D AR features for almost five years, but that it developed a new app for ARKit because of reach. “Apple is the one who reaches many people,” he said.

Simon Gardner, the chief executive officer at Climax Studios, concurred. His new AR game for iOS, Arise, creates a virtual puzzle in real space that can only be solved by physically tilting the iPhone or iPad and steering a character through this puzzle. Climax Studios has long dabbled in AR, and created a game called Towers for Tango for Google’s Tango AR platform. Gardner says they’ve also worked on apps for Microsoft’s HoloLens before, though none have published.

The biggest difference between building for those platforms, and building for iOS, is the size of the audience, Gardner said. “You have a potential install base on day one of hundreds of millions of devices.”

The biggest advantage Apple has with ARKit is that AR apps will run on any existing device that’s both equipped with an A9 processor and running iOS 11 software, which is currently still in beta. This means any iPhone 6S or later, or any iPad Pro, will run these AR apps.

Apple also has the advantage of owning the “full stack” in the iPhone and iPad: it controls everything from the iOS software right down to every component in every piece of hardware, which means the experience of how apps run on said devices is tightly controlled as well.

The Food Network’s AR app, In the Kitchen
Apple, Inc.

This means Google’s approach to AR has had to be a very different one, since Android shows up on devices of all sizes and specifications. The company has been working on its AR solution, called Tango, since 2013, and developed specific hardware and software requirements that phone manufacturers would have to adopt in order to support advanced AR. As a result, only two phone models to date, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and Asus ZenFone AR, have shipped with Tango.

But just this morning, Google announced something called ARCore, its equivalent to Apple’s ARKit. It’s a built-in AR platform for app makers, and is available now on Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy 8 phones, with the hopes that it will run on 100 million phones by this winter. This could expand the community for Google AR apps significantly, and The Verge’s Adi Robertson says that the controlled ARCore demo she had at Google’s offices was “one of the best experiences I’ve had with phone-based AR.” Google is also working on two experimental AR web browsers, one that will use ARCore and one that will run on iOS and support ARKit.

Certainly there are some technical advancements happening with Apple’s ARKit that are notable. ARKit enables something called “world tracking,” which, as The Verge’s Robertson has reported before, relies on a technique called visual-inertial odometry. Most AR on phones so far has involved 2D, flat overlays — think Pokémon Go — whereas the kind of AR we’re talking about now is advanced, 3D AR.

AMC’s The Walking Dead AR app, which is called Our World and was developed by Next Games, using an ARKit feature called ARPointCloud that lets developers hide objects in an AR environment and reveal them at a certain point in the experience. This is especially useful in a game like Our World, where walkers (zombies) appear to crawl out of the corners around you, at intervals, as you continue to play the game.

A new Walking Dead AR app, called Our World
Apple, Inc.

Some ARKit apps will incorporate multi-player or collaborative features as well. AMC and Next Games showed off how you’ll be able to invite friends to slay zombies with you in Our World; and the new Giphy AR app, called Giphy World, lets you create an AR environment filled with 3D confetti or cartoon hamburgers or 2D gifs floating around the room, and share a URL with another user who can add more Giphy content to your AR world.

Other ARKit apps might be simpler, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar AR app. A caterpillar inches around the room you’re in; you feed it when you feel like it; and eventually it turns into a butterfly. When you look up through the lens of an iPhone or iPad, it joins the dozens of other butterflies that have been created through previous game plays.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that iPhone and iPad users will be immune to the same problems that plague other advanced AR platforms — the gimmicky apps, the drain on device battery life, and the overall feeling that you’re sometimes using an AR app not because it makes sense but just because it’s a new AR app. These have all been very real barriers to AR becoming more mainstream.

But what will set ARKit apart, according to Barry O’Neill, chief executive officer of Caterpillar app-maker Touch Press, is the “ease of use from a developer perspective and the scale of the audience.”

“Consumers are going to work with AR in a very natural way now,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously said that Google’s ARCore would launch this winter. It’s available on Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy 8 phones now, and Google says it hopes it will run on 100 million devices by this winter.