As expected, at WWDC this week Apple unveiled its plans to support augmented reality on iOS devices, providing developers with software tools to create AR apps through its new ARKit. As an analyst who’s been covering the AR space for several years, I was quite happy to see Apple not only enter the space but do so in an aggressive way by adding support for the technology in the upcoming iOS 11 and across a wide swath of existing devices.
Apple Brings Scale to AR
Apple isn’t the first major player to throw its hat into the mobile AR ring, but the scale of its developer community and the size of the supported hardware installed base means it has the potential to significantly accelerate the entire category. Apple didn’t announce iOS developer numbers at this year’s WWDC keynote, but at last year’s event CEO Tim Cook put the number of registered developers at roughly 13 million, and that number has undoubtedly increased since then.
Apple’s AR Kit uses what the company calls visual-inertial odometry (VIO) to track the world around it. The VIO technology brings together camera sensor data with CoreMotion data collected by other device sensors to understand how a device moves, allowing the software to place digital objects into the scene. Importantly, ARKit also uses the camera to estimate the amount of light in a scene and then applies the correct amount of light to the virtual object. This helps address one of the key complaints about AR so far, which is that even realistic-looking digital objects look fake when they don’t have the same lighting as the real objects in the room. I had an opportunity to see ARKit in action shortly after the keynote and the visuals were suitably impressive. And it’s early days. I’m convinced developers will do amazing things with the technology.
Apple will roll out support for ARKit when it launches iOS 11 later this year. ARKIt requires iOS hardware running either Apple’s A9 or A10 processors. On the iPhone side, this includes the 6S, 6S Plus, SE, 7, and 7 Plus. On the iPad, this includes the recently launches iPad (2017) and all versions of the iPad Pro, including the first-generation 9.7- and 12.9-inch products and the new 10.5- and 12.9-inch products announced at WWDC. By not restricting support to just brand new products, Apple has guaranteed developers a substantial opportunity numbering in the hundreds of millions right out of the gate.
Existing Mobile AR Developer Kits
Prior to Monday’s announcement, among the most-used software developer platforms for creating augmented reality experiences for mobile devices was PTC’s Vuforia. PTC estimates that there are 350,000 Vuforia developers actively creating content on its platform. Earlier this month, the company estimated that developers so far have created about 40,000 applications, used by both consumer and commercial end users.
Another primary software developer platform for mobile AR is Wikitude. In April, the company estimated that about 100,000 developers were using its platform to create AR apps. It estimated the total apps to be about 20,000 with close to 750 million installs.
Both Vuforia and Wikitude support developers creating apps for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Vuforia also supports Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform. It’s worth noting that they both also support head-mounted displays that support these operating systems, too. These products aren’t shipping in significant volumes, yet, but they’re clearly the end-game for apps designed for industry verticals and hands-free use.
Finally, as I’ve discussed before, Google has offered support for Mobile AR through its Android-based Tango platform. At present, there are just two announced Android phones that support Tango and one shipping into the market.
Apple’s entrance into AR will significantly increase the number of developers looking at the space. The benefit of ARKit over other platforms is that because Apple controls the OS and hardware, it can provide a more customized and optimized experience than other developer kits. That said, I’d be willing to bet that companies such as PTC and Wikitude don’t see Apple’s entrance as a bad thing, but one that will effectively “raise all boats.” One of the other benefits of bringing Apple’s huge developer base is that we’ll soon start to see even more unique ideas forming around the use of augmented reality. I would go so far as to say that the true killer app for mobile AR doesn’t yet exist.
AR as Apple Hardware Refresh Driver
As noted, Apple is supporting ARKit on iOS 11 devices that support the A9 and A10 chips. While this includes a sizeable chunk of the iPhones in the world, it’s a much smaller subset of the iPads out there. At WWDC Apple announced a long list of iPad-specific updates to iOS that may well jumpstart interest in Apple’s tablet (and which merit a separate future column). Mobile AR, however, may end up being the new technology that drives a sizeable percentage of consumers to finally upgrade from their aging iPads.
Equally interesting is the question of whether Apple’s next-generation iPhones—expected later this year—will ship with additional AR capabilities beyond what’s available on today’s products. At present, ARKit is utilizing just the primary device camera and not the second camera currently available on the iPhone 7 Plus. It is reasonable to assume that future iterations of the phone will also have multiple cameras. Use of multiple cameras can lead to better AR experiences (Google Tango phones utilize three). Might Apple bifurcate the iOS AR experience later this year, potentially offering a better and best experience for buyers of its newest flagship phone?
The next few months will be crucial to Apple’s AR ambitions gaining traction with developers as the company heads into its fall iPhone announcements. I fully expect to hear Tim Cook announce during that event the number of AR-enabled apps already available in the iOS App Store. And the success of developers in creating AR apps for the iPhone and iPad will naturally lead to what logically comes next: a head worn AR product from Apple.