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AR/VR seems to be something of a buzzword lately. While you may have heard that the future of video lies in these new technologies, the takeup rate has been sluggish. Perhaps people are still confused as to what these two terms mean. Or maybe they are cynical. And then there’s the restrictively high costs and extensive computing skills required to venture into the world of AR/VR.

Whatever the reasons may be, it seems that we finally have a game changer – in the form of Apple’s ARKit.

Before we discuss Apple’s ARKit, let’s disambiguate the differences between AR and VR first.

Augmented Reality (AR) vs Virtual Reality (VR)

The fundamental difference between the two is a matter of principle. VR eradicates the real environment in favor of the virtual, although the virtual is also injected with the sufficiently real so as to allow us to navigate that environment. In this sense, it’s not so much VR (virtual reality) as it is RV (“realified virtuality”). AR, on the other hand, layers virtual objects over the physical world. While wearable VR devices no doubt create a more intuitive user experience, the upshot with AR is that we can navigate both a virtual and a physical world simultaneously, allowing us to find ways to use the virtual in aid of the real.

Paul Milgram’s Reality-Virtuality Continuum. While AR Lies Towards The Left, VR Occupies A Spot Closer To The Right.

There are numerous applied differences. Firstly, VR requires bulky and oftentimes expensive headsets. AR, on the other hand, is now getting increasingly integrated into mobile devices – thanks to Apple’s ARKit and (to a lesser extent) Google’s Tango. In fact, most people are already acquainted with one form of AR or another. Snapchat, Instagram, and Pokemon Go are just some examples of apps that carry AR functions.

While VR has its place in gaming, it is still a niche area. AR, on the other hand, holds numerous foreseeable applications to daily life. And since Apple is once again in the lead, it is expected that other mobile makers will be scrambling to match up with Apple’s AR technology. We can expect an exponential growth in the number of AR-supported mobile devices, as well as increasing sophistication of AR technology in the near future.

OK, so what’s with Apple’s ARKit?

Apple’s ARKit is an AR platform for iOS. It allows developers to programme AR-based apps for Apple devices, and users to use their iPhones and iPads as a lens into an augmented reality. Freshly launched at the WWDC17 this June, the ARKit is already showing signs of becoming the Next Big Thing in the digital world.

Some noteworthy points about the hype surrounding the ARKit:

  • Apple is not the first-mover.
    It is, in fact, late to the AR game. Case in point: Google’s own AR platform, Tango, has been around since 2014. But Tango is only supported on a select few mobile devices. And to be honest, not a lot of people know about it.
  • Other AR platforms (Vuforia, Layar SDK, etc) abound.
    But usurping the ARKit will be a sisyphean task, simply going by the number of Apple products that are currently being used (more than a billion, apparently1)
  • The current ARKit is still running on iOS 11 Beta.
    Which means that when the full iOS 11 is released this fall, alongside iPhone 8, we can anticipate improved hard and software specs that deliver better AR capabilities.
  • No one knows what’s next.
    With the launch of ARKit, the next obvious step is to launch a wearable AR device that improves on user experience. One possibility is a device similar to Google Glasses or Microsoft’s Hololens. Apple is secretive about its plans, but rumours have it that two Apple employees suffered eye injuries after testing an unspecified prototype.2 Perhaps a near-eye device is, in fact, in the pipelines? Our guess is as good as yours.

All these are good and well, but you might still be wondering if the ARKit is any good, and if so, how is it better than the other options?

We are no tech expert. But there are two salient points here: Firstly, the response from developers have been warm. The general consensus lies along the lines of “not perfect perfect, but pretty good so far3”.

Secondly, the incorporation of AR capabilities in iOS11 will significantly lower the barrier of entry for both developers and users. This is, by far, the most significant point. Whether the ARKit is the best AR platform at this point pales in comparison to the fact that Apple’s reach in the consumer market is far and wide. At this rate, It’s not a question of if AR will become mainstream, but a question of when.

The future is now.

Developers are catching on

Apple’s ARKit has only been launched for about a month, and developers are already pushing out promising samples of their creations. Here are some of our favourites:

A simple demo of iOS’ AR capabilities. Already, we can envision sophisticated uses for AR from this video alone. For instance, architecture, set, and interior designers can shave off significant time and effort by building AR models instead of physical models.

A virtual measuring tape. The fact that this idea is feasible just goes to show how precise ARKit’s motion tracking capabilities has to be

While VR is already being used for training purposes, the use of AR can significantly decrease the cost and expertise involved in using VR. Just imagine driving lessons in AR – if this becomes feasible, then everyone can have a go at it from the comforts of their own homes.

Yet Another Showcase Of Just How Precise The Tracking Capabilities Are, Considering The Fact That IPhones Do Not Yet Contain Specialized AR Hardwares.

Pokemon will not have the monopoly on AR games for much longer. Imagine playing Left 4 Dead on the sidewalks – that is, if Apple comes up with AR glasses next.

Future implications?

Sci-fi movies of the past often depict enviable gadgets: transparent display screens, virtual personal assistants, lightsabers… Well, the last one may have to wait. But with AR, at least we know that make-believe versions of these gadgets will become accessible to us soon.

AR’s implication on jobs is bound to be significant. As AR becomes incorporated into the mainstream, developers who do not want to miss out on the gold rush must be ready to take on AR programming. Other jobs will be impacted too: Marketers of the future, for instance, may have to incorporate computing and software engineering into their essential skillset.

But all new technologies bring difficulties. If AR/VR glasses prove to be the future of smarphones, then we might also have to prepare for a future where virtual marketing information infiltrate every inch of our visual field. As if internet advertisements aren’t already bad enough – just imagine getting harassed by (virtual) salesmen at each turn of the street corner, going “psssst! 5 hot tips for getting your bikini body this summer!

On a more speculative level, there’s something, dare we say, nihilistic about this whole AR enterprise. When we’ve populated our real surroundings with virtual assistants, branded goods, and fine art, will we still be able to tolerate the bare reality?

Real or virtual? Utopia or dystopia? Will we be able to tell the difference? Or have we already lost sense of the difference?

Time will tell. But for now, we can safely assume that as the AR/VR race gains traction, the rate of innovation and technological uptake will only increase exponentially. And as always, we will have to learn to make new technologies bend to us, not us to them.

Chao Quan Choo

Chao Quan Choo

UI Designer at OFFEO