It’s easy to be apathetic about augmented reality. It’s been around for a long time in demonstrations and lodged into bits of apps, but never been anything close to a reason to actually buy a phone.
That’s about to change – and it could potentially revolutionize entertainment and the way we learn. In the space of two months both Apple and Google unleashed the ability to create augmented reality apps on their mobile platforms, giving developers the tools to start using the camera on phones to enhance the world around with information and games.
While both Android and iOS devices now have the power to run AR apps, Apple is making the biggest noise about it.
CEO Tim Cook told The Sun the potential of AR is: “like it was in 2008 when the App Store opened. The first apps rolled off and people said these are not very interesting.
“People will say that about AR and you can bet sometime after that they will wake up and say I cannot believe I can live without it.”
With the CEO putting out messages like that, it’s hard to not think Apple really believes this could be the biggest shift in how we use our phones in nearly a decade.
A developer's dream
Developers are excited about the possibility as well - where usually creating a new form of entertainment requires a revolutionary platform, with the launch of the software tools suddenly they have access to millions of devices able to run the games and apps.
“I’ve worked in AR for a long time, and I really like the fact that you can just...create stuff” said Dave Ranyard, Founder and CEO of VR and AR development studio Dream Reality Interactive.
“The thing that’s amazing with [ARKit] is you’ve literally got this full 3D environment. Where previously you needed a console and loads of other stuff, this is a great opportunity - it’s great to have all these iOS devices [to publish to].
Like apps, this is crucial: if there's nobody using a smartphone platform, nobody will make apps for it.
Without apps, the users won't come - it's the fate that befell Windows Phone. But with AR, the situation is reversed: loads of potential users, and now simple tools to get coding for it.
“We wouldn't have been able to touch this before [ARKit was announced]. If you even wanted to consider AR you had to work out how to do things like plane detection and for three guys in a room trying to make games, that’s huge,” said Travis Ryan, founder of Dumpling Designs studio and creator of AR title Smash Tanks!
“You’re investing all that tech into solving those problems, where the real problems you want be solving is how you actually make good games out of it.”
"We took the heavy lifting and put it in the operating system and now the developer can focus on their passions - the board game, the space app and so on,” Cook told The Sun, something many other developers really appreciated.
Augmentra is a development studio that makes ViewRanger, a title that combines AR with real world imagery to let hikers know where they’re going, and what they’re seeing on the landscape.
“We’re a small, early stage company in Cambridge and we spent a couple of years trying to build our own AR technology to do that sort of labelling,” Augmentra CEO Craig Wareham told us.
“What’s exciting now is that Apple comes along with ARKit and it catapults everything forward. We’re able to now put more information more easily and more accurately into the environment, so we can concentrate on our app and users and not the AR tech.”
Most people will have seen augmented reality in some form or another - the most popular being Pokemon Go, which overlaid catching pocket monsters on the real world through the phone camera.
However, it wasn't a great advert for AR, because it actually made the game harder, taxing the phone’s memory and making the flicks and spins needed trickier.
But of all the demonstrated titles we saw, the idea was to actually move in 3D space, getting closer and further away from the focal point to learn more about it, with the real world enhancing the app rather than getting in the way.
What's impressive is that within six weeks of ARKit being unleashed developers already had titles available to download - thanks to the simplicity Apple's platform offers.
While it's far, far too early to proclaim AR as the next shift in the way we use our phones, it's hard not to see it progressing from 'potential cool thing' to genuinely impressive way to interact with the world, giving us a lens to see it anew.
Where we once were told that we could see information about the sports we're watching live just by holding up our camera, now that's a reality... within months of Apple launching its platform.
Like the name, AR isn't going to change the way we use apps or play games - it's going to augment the experience.
Where you might sit back on the daily commute and play a few levels of Candy Crush, you could go home to your family, clear the kitchen table and try and smash the tanks of your offspring while moving around to get the optimum angle.
In terms of education, it's easy to see AR being a big winner there as well - it takes the digital world but makes it more interactive and encourages curiosity, the 'what's over there, what happens if I move this?' mentality that many worry is being reduced by the sedentary lifestyle using our phones encourages.
“The way to think about AR is that it’s a platform - it’s like the internet. You know it’s going to be used in all sorts of way, and I’ve no doubt it’ll touch on every aspect of our leisure and working lives,” added Wareham. “It’s usable by everybody - young or old, it won’t matter.”
But there's still a slight issue - holding the phone up in front of your face still feels weird. The space to prod is small, even with phablets, but tablets are cumbersome to carry around.
The idea that you can watch a movie played out in 3D on your dining table is amazing, but you'll soon tire of holding a device out.
Throughout all the demonstrations, it became clearer and clearer where the watershed moment lies with AR: a pair of glasses that enhances everything you're looking at. Think the best spy gear from films of years gone by and you're not far off.
Playing a game or watching a film around a table? A tap on the side of the glasses will change the normal view into something extraordinary, or flick up information on the world around you.
Want to know how far away your train is? How many goals that soccer player has scored? You'll be able to call the information up with ease.
This sounds fanciful, but it's definitely something Apple's interested in exploring. The brand has been constantly documented as researching into this area, and all the efforts on show to us would instantly be improved by wearing glasses instead of holding up a phone or tablet.
You wouldn't even need a special controller to make this work, as it's possible to have the glasses recognise your hand in space as an interactive object.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves - such devices are a long way from reality, with only Google Glass and some other minor efforts making it out of the labs.
Glass was never intended as anything other than a trial, but it's somehow been used as proof that AR is going to be for the geeks - which is very likely why Apple isn't launching such hardware any time soon.
“There are rumours and stuff about companies working on [AR glasses]– we obviously don’t talk about what we’re working on,” he told The Independent.
"Today I can tell you the technology itself doesn’t exist to do that in a quality way. The display technology required, as well as putting enough stuff around your face – there’s huge challenges with that," he added.
Of course, it's a long way from certain that AR will ever take off. Even if hundreds or thousands of developers start knocking out augmented reality titles, it doesn't mean consumers will want them. Playing an AR game is active, where leaning back and tapping away at mindless titles is a guilty habit of so many.
But - just as the success of the Nintendo Wii showed that it's possible to shift the way people play console games, a shift is eminently possible if impressive and creative titles start to emerge. And with so many potential users walking around with the necessary devices in their pocket, it won't take much to kick off that movement.
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