Is Google waiting for Apple to Popularize Mobile AR?

on May 26, 2017
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Google’s I/O developer conference is interesting because the company covers a lot of ground and talks about a lot of things in the keynotes. As a result, not everything that merits mainstage discussion one year is still top-of-mind for executives a year later. Still, I was somewhat surprised to see how little stage time Tango—Google’s mobile augmented reality technology—got at this year’s event. This despite the fact augmented reality has been a key focus of other recent developer conferences, including Facebook’s F8 and Microsoft’s Build. I can’t help but wonder: Is Google struggling to find progress with Tango or is it just waiting for Apple and its developers to validate the mobile AR market?

Two to Tango
Nearly a year ago, I wrote about Google’s decision to turn Project Tango into a full-fledged initiative at the company. Tango utilizes three cameras and various sensors to create a mobile augmented reality experience you view on the phone screen. By tracking the space around the phone and the device’s movement through that space, Tango lets developers drop objects into the real world. In January, I wrote about my experiences with the first Tango phone from Lenovo and noted that a second phone, from ASUS, was also on the way. More than five months later, Google executives said on stage at I/O that there are still only two announced Tango phones. Worse yet, much of the discussion around the technology was a rehash of previous Tango talking points and the one seemingly new demo failed to work on stage. In fact, aside from a video about using Tango in schools (Expedition AR), Tango’s biggest win at I/O seemed to be the fact Google is using a piece of the technology, dubbed WorldSense, to drive future Daydream virtual reality products.

My experience with Tango back in January showed the technology still had a long way to go, with the device heating up and apps crashing on a regular basis. But it also showed the potential of mobile AR. The fact is, developers can drive a pretty rudimentary mobile AR experience on most any modern smartphone, as the short-lived hype around Pokémon Go proved. But for a great experience, you need the right hardware and you need the right apps. That Google hasn’t seemed to make much progress in either, at least publicly, is surprising, as it would seem to be an area where the company has a substantial head start on Apple’s iOS and iPhone.

Waiting for Apple?
One of the biggest predictions around Apple’s next iPhone is that it will offer some sort of mobile AR experience as a key feature. Apple hasn’t said it will but CEO Tim Cook’s frequent comments about AR, and the company’s string of AR-related acquisitions, certainly point in that direction. Which has me wondering if maybe Google has slowed down on Tango because it needs Apple (and its marketing muscle) to convince consumers they want mobile AR. Or perhaps, more importantly, mobile developers should embrace the technology and create new apps.

Apple will likely ship the next version of the iPhone in September or October of this year. But the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference is happening in just a few weeks. So the question becomes: Does Apple begin to talk about augmented reality experiences on the iPhone now or later? If now, does that mean the company will support AR on existing iPhones or will only the new iPhone support the technology? As I noted last September, the addition of a second camera to the iPhone 7 Plus makes it a reasonable candidate for some AR features.

Chances are, if Apple is planning a big augmented reality push for iPhone, it already has key developers working on apps under non-disclosure agreements. But to drive big momentum, the company will need to get a significant percentage of its existing developer base to support it, too. It will be interesting to see if and what Apple discloses during the big keynote on June 5th. If Apple does put its full weight behind such an initiative, it can move the market. Such a move might jumpstart adjacent interest in Tango.

As for Google in the near-term, Daydream VR is clearly a bigger priority, as the company is working with HTC and Lenovo to bring to market standalone headset products and executives noted that more phones would soon support the technology, including Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S8 and S8+. In fact, Google predicted that, by years’ end, there would be tens of millions of Daydream-capable phones in the market. That’s the kind of scale Google likes and the kind of scale Tango can’t hope to achieve. Yet.