Apple Announces ARKit, Calls It the Largest AR Platform in the World

At WWDC 2017, Apple unveiled its new augmented reality developer platform, ARKit, calling it the "largest AR platform in the world." What does this claim mean to developers, and what does this mean to iOS users?

For developers, the statement that Apple's AR platform is the largest in the world is exciting because it is quantifiably true. To explore the context of this claim, let's first look at the current leaders in AR, Google and Facebook.

Google has been pioneering in the AR space longer than it would care for us to remember (Google Glass). Through trial and error, it has honed its AR tech into a software platform called Tango. The technology uses dual-cameras to make possible some pretty impressive tasks such as 3D room modeling with wide-angle image capture and depth-data for precise tracking. Game development for Tango is progressing quickly. Tango’s limitation lies in the possible lack of support available from Android device hardware manufacturers such as Lenovo, Asus, LG, Huawei, and HTC. Without dual-cameras and the processing chops to handle AR, some devices will come up short. Google’s AR experience, and the opportunities for developers, may be stuck with the hardware specifications that manufacturers are capable of delivering.

As for Facebook, developers will be limited to the technology of their camera app. While Facebook has been aggressively pursuing VR and AR since the company's acquisition of Oculus Rift, the developer base has only dedicated resources to a VR/AR-first approach in limited capacity. When developing an app or integration, all developers must consider the potential user base to justify the risk of developing for a new technology.

Apple is making its brash statement based on the size of its existing developer and user bases, and the limitations of its competitors. Apple is saying that by releasing the ARKit, it is fully prepared to support development in the AR space. No longer will developers need to create their own engines for AR, which makes AR and VR more accessible to developers, and subsequently more useful to Apple users.

Apple’s cutting-edge ARKit includes powerful capabilities for positional tracking, scene understanding, and lighting estimation. These features allows the camera on the iPad and iPhone to detect horizontal planes such as tables and floors accurately, and project objects to pinned points. ARKit also fuses camera sensor data with CoreMotion data. These two inputs allow the device to accurately sense how it moves within a room. They call this “Visual Inertial Odeometry” or VIO, and will provide developers with a robust tool to track the world around a device. Along with integration for SceneKit and SpriteKit and rendering with Metal 2, the ARKit introduces a framework that is a seamless addition to the developer’s toolbox.

So what does this mean for Apple device users? Beyond Pokemon GO, the only AR app developed on iOS with any major adoption, this announcement means users can expect a lot more AR integration support in Apple’s apps and devices. Going forward, iOS users can expect to see some AR features integrated into apps with video capabilities. We could see some interesting additions to the iMovie app. SnapChat has been hugely successful with the video filters they added to their product. More AR functionality in existing video-related apps in the App Store would not be a surprising shift. Apple has announced integration support with both UNITY (OZ: Broken Kingdom, Deus Ex) and UNREAL (BioShock, Gears of War), indicating it will be aggressively pursuing the use of ARKit in the gaming world. At the WWDC ARKit demo, Apple walked us through a version of the Goldilocks story as it played out live with animation pinned to a surface. It also announced integration with IKEA’s app, allowing users to pull furniture directly into their home. 

The iPhone Plus models currently have two cameras, which, like Google’s Tango, improves a device’s ability to accurately capture and 3D model the world around it. Not surprisingly, rumors have been confirmed regarding Apple’s research into a VR/AR headset. The ARKit announcement marks an important stepping stone for Apple on its path toward embracing AR and VR as the imminent and massive technological development it appears to be. Typical of its influence on the industry, Apple has once again arrived in a space where developers and users alike can all cheer as the tech giant throws its confident and stylish hat into the ring.

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Chris Vasques has worked for tech companies such as Avid and Gazelle, where his long history of gadget and technology fascination became a professional passion. He is currently studying Sustainable Community Development with a focus on Media Marketing, and enjoys writing, playing music, productivity hacks and entrepreneurism.