The next big thing?

Augmented reality set to become next battlefield for Apple and Google

ARKit gives Apple gadgets instant AR, with Google's ARCore a boost for Android devices

An attendee demonstrates the ARKit, augmented reality tool, on an Apple Inc. iPad Pro during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California.
An attendee demonstrates the ARKit, augmented reality tool, on an Apple Inc. iPad Pro during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Pokemon Go brought augmented reality, or AR, to consumers worldwide. But it could be Apple and Google that will soon open the floodgates to the adoption of this technology, which superimposes digital objects on the real world and displays them on a smartphone screen or head-mounted display.

A fortnight ago, Apple released its latest iOS 11 mobile operating system, which comes with the ARKit application programming interface that lets developers build AR apps.

With a mere software upgrade to iOS 11, millions of Apple devices instantly receive AR functionality. ARKit runs on devices such as the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, using Apple's A9 and later processors.

Within days of the iOS 11 rollout, developers have released apps that explore the versatility of AR, from tape-measure apps that estimate the distance between objects to a Sudoku solver that scans an unsolved puzzle like a QR code and displays the answer on the phone's screen.

Google's answer is ARCore, a similar set of tools released as a preview to developers at end-August. The search giant is no stranger to AR, having tried and failed with its Google Glass wearable.

Unlike the standalone Google Glass, ARCore will support more than 100 million existing and upcoming Android devices when it is launched this winter, said Google.

ARCore itself has its origins in Tango, Google's earlier AR effort three years ago which yielded two phones from Asus and Lenovo, but was met with muted interest from developers, with just over 30 Tango AR apps in the Google Play Store.

However, the latest smartphone-based AR developments will be significant. According to Gartner research director Manjunath Bhat, most consumers will likely experience AR and virtual reality (VR) technologies via their smartphones, even though head-mounted displays like the Microsoft HoloLens or the Oculus Rift deliver better user experiences than smartphones.

"Competition among smartphone providers will spur VR and AR scenarios for smartphones that will be more deeply integrated into future mobile-computing platforms," he said. He tips Google's "advances in computer vision and machine learning" to trickle down to AR developers via software tools.

But he noted that Apple's iOS platform has historically generated more revenue for developers. "The biggest incentive for building on iOS is that most iOS users are likely running the latest operating system while Android users lag at least a version or two behind," he said.

Whichever the platform, Mr Bhat believes that this year could be the tipping point for AR. "Augmented reality can transform the way people interact with devices and their physical environments," he said.

Mr Aldric Chang, CEO of local VR developer Mixed Realms, sees the most potential in Google's platform, thanks to the huge number of Android users.

However, he believes that Microsoft's approach, which blends augmented and virtual reality into what is dubbed Mixed Reality, is the way to go. "Eventually, AR and VR will converge as the technology matures. If you can wait for it to happen, developing for Microsoft will be exciting as your app can be distributed across different platforms - PC, Windows Phones, dedicated AR/VR platforms and the Xbox console," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Augmented reality set to become next battlefield for Apple and Google'. Subscribe