Apple chief executive Tim Cook has described augmented reality as a “a big idea like the smartphone,” which should give you a sense of how important the iPhone maker thinks AR really is. So it's no surprise that analysts are expecting to hear big things about Apple's plans for AR as it looks to the future — and a new generation of the iPhone.
What is augmented reality?
Augmented reality is the catchall term for technology that blends digital objects into the physical world. Remember Pokémon Go? That’s a perfect example of what we’re talking about: By looking through the phone’s camera, players are able to see the cartoonlike monsters in a real-world setting.
AR is different from virtual reality, which relies on headsets to block your perception of the world outside your helmet or goggles. With augmented reality, you’re always relying on what your own senses perceive in the real world; it just has some extra enhancements.
Beyond Pokémon Go and other games how is that useful?
Gaming may be the splashiest and most obvious use, but there is plenty of potential for this technology through apps. It could actually solve a lot of the small, practical headaches that we encounter from day to day.
For example, a car company could ask you to hold your phone up to your car so that the screen shows you step by step which parts to fiddle with to change the oil. The sidewalk could light up in front of you to give walking directions through a mall or a city, maybe highlighting points of interest en route. Or think of entertainment: You could have your favorite comedian perform stand-up in your living room. You could show your kids how big a space shuttle is by placing it in your living room — no roof work required.
It’s true that there’s no “killer app” for augmented reality yet, no single thing that developers have dreamed up that makes everyone clamor to use it. That's one reason — though certainly not the only one — that Google Glass never took off. But by building AR capability into the iPhone, Apple gives developers a bigger platform on which to play around and doesn't need to think about building a separate device.
It may take some time for that investment to pay off, both for Apple and consumers. But there is a lot of tech industry interest in mixing our digital and physical worlds.
What has Apple already announced around AR?
In June, Apple announced a tool kit for developers called ARKit, which makes it easier for software makers to create apps that use AR technology. Some examples include a prototype app from Ikea that measures your room and figures out how your furniture will look inside it. That should work better than furniture apps that use the camera to overlay a piece of furniture into a room but don’t scale it to fit the space.
ARKit is a part of iOS 11, though it’s not an app that consumers will see on their phones. Still, apps that use it should work on all iPhones dating back to the iPhone 6s.
What are we expecting from Apple next week on this front?
For one, iOS 11 should be out next week, meaning that nearly anyone with and iPhone will be able to try out AR apps right away. (It’s a good bet that Apple has some apps lined up for the launch.)
There are also reports that the camera array in the new iPhone will be depth-sensing — though Apple has not confirmed that. But if that’s true, it means that the AR experience could be highly accurate because the phone’s camera would have a very good sense of how objects fit in a room.
Down the line, if AR finds traction, some analysts think Apple may develop augmented-reality glasses similar to Google’s Glass or Microsoft’s HoloLens — but with that special Apple style, of course.
No matter what, Apple watchers are pretty sure that whatever push we see next week will be just the beginning.