Apple’s ARKit – Smoke & Mirrors or Meat & Potatoes?

The first computer I ever owned was a 1st generation Macintosh. For her 70th birthday, I bought my mom a 1st generation iMac. My household has three iPhones, two iPads, a Mac mini, a MacBook and Apple TV. I think it is fair to say that I drink Apple’s Kool Aid regularly.

Because my head is ensconced in Augmented Reality and Tim Cook has recently been speaking about the tremendous opportunities it presents, I had to watch the WWDC keynote speeches this year and see what Apple would announce. With as little as Apple has actually released to date for Augmented Reality, a lot of folks were convinced that something had to be made public at WWDC. We weren’t disappointed – not entirely, at least.

Unfortunately, I am not quite as thrilled with the announcement of ARKit as others seem to be. Apple is playing this as though it is a revolutionary technology that will suddenly open the deployed base of Apple hardware to Augmented Reality and I am seeing article after article extolling how wonderful and earth shattering this announcement is. Excuse me?!

Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO) is at the heart of ARKit. It gives devices the ability to recognise their surroundings and generate a 3D model using just a camera and sensors, which every iPhone and iPad already have. Additionally, the ARKit also has very robust tracking capabilities. That is, you can place a virtual object in a space and ARKit will use your device’s motion detectors keep track of where that object is relative to your field of view. Because it includes sensor data, this works even if you cover the camera lens. Unfortunately, all that data is lost at the end of your session, but this problem can be resolved easily enough if Apple wants to.

Thus, the fanfare to say that every iPhone and iPad will be Augmented Reality ready once ARKit is released.

The rub, as I see it, is that every iPhone and iPad is already Augmented Reality ready. Any and every vendor selling Augmented Reality solutions already targets iOS. Yes, Apple has done a super cool job with its VIO implementation and it will give additional capabilities to iOS devices, which will make even better Augmented Reality experiences possible, but really – is it a game changer?

Apple would like us to think that ARKit is uniquely differentiating technology – which it really isn’t. It appears to be a great, high quality piece of work, consistent with Apple’s usual high standards, but it isn’t the game changer people are making it out to be. VIO is open source and can be just as readily implemented onto Windows and Android devices as it is on iOS devices (assuming presence and accuracy of sensor data). Vuforia, a very popular Augmented Reality SDK, already has tracking as well.

In an environment that is in desperate need of standards and common tools, having yet another platform specific development tool points the Augmented Reality world in absolutely the wrong direction. Even though multi platform development tools like Unity and Unreal will support ARKit, using ARKit capability still forces the developers to custom code to the Apple platform – which really sucks.

Will ARKit take wing? As most mobile products are multi platform, many developers choose to code to common feature sets, which won’t include ARKit. It will be interesting to see how many developers pick up ARKit to differentiate / enable their products and how many wait for VIO features to make their way to Android.

Will ARKit beat out Tango? Could well be. If history is any guide, users couldn’t care less about what is under the hood as long as they get the results they want with a minimum of inconvenience. The additional accuracy that Tango brings won’t probably matter much to the average user, but a higher price tag certainly will. With only two Tango phones on the market this year and very few released apps, Tango has a chicken-and-egg problem that ARKit doesn’t.

A lot of people, myself included, expect Apple to introduce precise depth sensing technology with the iPhone 8, bringing it on par with Tango devices. But, if ARKit is so revolutionary and powerful, they won’t need to do this, will they?! I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Now, if you want to see things that are really earth shattering, in terms of Augmented Reality at least, then I suggest you check out AWE, Phantom and WebAR. These are tools that are really opening the world of Augmented Reality to everybody, not just Apple users.

AWE is a robust platform for creating Augmented Reality experiences (and more!) that can be immediately shared amongst over 3 Billion devices without any additional software or hardware. It runs in your browser and supports 99% of the installed base of Smartphones, HMDs, tablet and computers. And yes, if they wanted to and had the resources, they too could implement VIO.

Phantom is tool to create multi-platform Augmented Reality experiences using a drag and drop interface. Although still in its early stages, this is one of the most exciting tools I’ve seen on the Augmented Reality scene yet. This is a startup worth funding!!

WebAR an open source project driven largely by Google to bring Augmented Reality capabilities directly into your browser. Although it is currently tied to Tango devices, there is no technical reason why this couldn’t adopt VIO, or other technologies, as well.

No disrespect to the team that put ARKit together. It seems to be impressive work. Apple’s ARKit is good for Apple and iOS users, and because it raises the bar in Augmented Reality functionality and pushes the market to respond with equal or better tools, the whole Augmented Reality industry benefits in the long term as well. Let’s just please not pretend it is something it really isn’t.