The Path to AR for the Masses Will Go Through the Smartphone

on July 11, 2017
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Apple’s ARkit has been getting a lot of attention and for good reason. In fact, if you want to keep a close eye on all the really interesting, cool, and innovative things developers are trying already with ARkit, follow this Twitter account called Made with ARkit. This account has been finding, and tweeting, a number of really interesting developer applications and experimentations as they get to know Apple’s ARkit and experiment. There have been two observations around Apple’s ARkit that have stood out to me.

The first is the extremely high praise it has been getting even from many of Apple’s harshest critics. I’ve seen folks who have been very vocal, with large following on Twitter, about their dissatisfaction with Apple’s tools, new tools and OS features, and more, sing Apple’s praise with ARKit. It appears consensus not just from developers but even from Apple’s harshest technical and developer critics is that Apple nailed ARkit and knocked this one out of the park.

The second observation is how excited many developers seem to be over ARkit and the tools themselves. I can’t keep track of the number of tweets from developers remarking on how easy, quick, and natural to their existing development workflow, adding ARkit features to their apps has been. It has only been a few weeks and already a number of big and small developers have been going full speed to bring a plethora of apps which include experiences never seen before to the iPhone this fall.

As much as we have been studying and tracking augmented reality, even I did not expect it would move this fast. Not just with developers embracing it but with incredibly compelling use cases we are seeing them build into their apps that I can actually see real humans using and finding value with. We are, no doubt, about to see a whole new app development era that turns our phones into windows to view and engage with digital objects and the physical world at the same time.

It should come as no surprise that this new app development era will take place on the smartphone first. This is a device everyone already has. Includes the core technology from processing, GPU, image sensors and more. These app experiences have always felt like a natural extension to existing apps for things like commerce, travel, education, games, etc. The key has always been getting a critical mass of developers to take hold of the technology, make it their own, and experiment in new ways. This is what we are on the cusp of watching happen.

It should also come as no surprise this AR rush of apps and development will happen on iOS first, and in some cases there will be many iOS only AR experiences. Apple has not only the best and most valuable customers willing to buy and engage with these new apps but also the most robust and creative developer community of any platform. Apple also has a unique hardware advantage in their control over hardware fragmentation. Apple can guarantee developers a smaller set of hardware variables to develop for in things like CPU/GPU/camera and camera sensor, which allows a much larger active installed base of devices to take advantage of their innovations. ARkit apps will be supported on all A9 and A10 devices. This gives developers hundreds of millions of devices day one that can access their apps. No other platform on the planet can offer this massive reach to developers. You can be sure they will maximize it in every way possible.

I also feel consumers are ready as I pointed out in this article how AR app and experiences will sneak up on people. This goes beyond something as simple as Pokemon Go, but strikes at the deeper reality that many people experience some form of augmented reality today and just don’t realize it. Interestingly, I came across a survey which asked people the types of apps they have used in the last 30 days and 3.9% said an Augmented Reality app. Even if we just looked at Snapchat and Pokemon Go alone that number would be significantly larger than 3.9% but it makes my point that most people don’t realize or associate it as augmented reality. I also don’t think consumers are going to go hunt for AR apps on the basis of AR itself. Rather, I think people will discover new things their apps can do and AR will add value to many existing experiences they have today. Of course, there will be some new games, and app types, but it will be the app experience and the feature AR enables that drives consumers to want to download it not because it classifies as “augmented reality.”

Lastly, and I thought this was a controversial opinion until I tweeted it and a bunch of folks responded to me saying it wasn’t, but I think Android is really going to struggle with augmented reality for a while. We can use Project Tango as an example, but I am not surprised developers didn’t embrace that en masse. What is going to hit Android hard here is the hardware fragmentation that exists on the platform. It is going to take a few years, at least, for Android devices to have a critical mass of hardware capable of even remotely decent AR experiences. This means developers won’t waste resources on the platform for some time since they won’t have a large enough potential customer base to go after. Big apps like Yelp, Facebook, Snapchat, etc., will bring these features to their app but many devices won’t support the more cutting edge features. The bottom line is, Android’s tough development environment because of the thousands of device and hardware configuarations is going to make it tough as an AR platform. This opens the door for Microsoft in some regards for Windows as a second platform for AR development, but minus a mobile phone OS, that could be limited to more semi-mobile or fixed AR experiences. The point remains for Microsoft, they will be a more developer friendly platform for AR than Android in the short term so it will interesting to see how they move that forward and attract software developers for Windows mixed reality/augmented reality experiences.