Later this year, Apple Inc. will put augmented reality software in as many as a billion mobile devices.
Alphabet Inc.'s Google beat Apple by three years in releasing AR tools, but its features are on very few phones and haven't gained wide acceptance. By contrast, Apple can easily pair its software and devices, an advantage that will help it quickly make up lost ground, developers say.
"When they make it available, my apps will be in millions of phones," said Alper Guler, who makes AR programs. "It's a major update which enables us to push forward far further."
AR superimposes digital information -- for example, video game characters or product prices -- onto a person's view of the real world. Virtual reality, on the other hand, immerses users in a completely digital experience. The market for both technologies could be worth as much as $182 billion by 2025, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
Apple last month lifted the lid on ARKit, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company's first foray into this field. The tool lets developers build AR applications for iPhones and iPads.
Google revealed Tango, its AR software system, back in 2014, with the latest iteration showed off this January. Unlike ARKit, it requires infrared depth perception sensors, and there are currently only two mobile phones available with the technology: Lenovo Group Ltd.'s Phab 2 Pro and Asustek Computer Inc.'s ZenFone AR. Apple's ARKit uses the iPhone's existing hardware, such as the camera and gyroscope, to achieve similar ends.
The crux of the problem for Google is what's known as fragmentation. When it updates its Android mobile operating system, hardware makers and cellular network operators are often slow to send the new software to phones. That means the latest features, like Tango, only reach a fraction of Android's more than 2 billion monthly active devices. Apple designs both software and hardware, giving it more control over when and how its operating system is loaded onto iPhones. The result: 86 percent of Apple's mobile devices run the latest iOS software, compared with 11.5 percent of Android devices that run the newest Android OS.
An instant market
This is a major drawback when you're in the business of building a new AR ecosystem that weds apps made by third-party developers to millions of smartphone-wielding consumers. Tango is on so few Android devices that developers won't risk making apps for the system because they worry no one will use them.
It's the opposite with Apple: If only half of all its active devices download the new iOS 11 operating system this fall, that will be 500 million iPhones and iPads with ARKit. (More than 1 billion Apple devices run iOS, but some earlier models will be incompatible with the new OS). Still, that's a huge, almost-instant market for AR developers to target.
Take the designers at Buenos Aires-based digital studio Dift Collective, who considered Tango but still haven't been tempted to use it. Yet since Apple Inc. released ARKit to developers in June, the team has made AR experiences including a computer-generated rocket landing in a swimming pool and a 3-D moon that floats in the middle of a living room.
"For us the main step forward is the distribution," said Charly De Venezia, Dift's head of operations.
Even if Google came up with AR software that didn't require a 3-D sensor, the multiple versions of Android running on hundreds of different phones would create a lot of extra work for developers, he explained. As of early July, there were seven different versions of Android running on mobile devices, according to Google.
Since developers would have to test and optimize AR apps for so many different devices with varying display resolutions and performance capabilities, "it would require a huge effort to take this to Android and make it market-ready," De Venezia said.
Google declined to comment. However, the company is trying to tackle the fragmentation issue. Project Treble, unveiled in May, re-designed Android to make it faster and cheaper for manufacturers to update devices.
Still, requiring Android hardware makers to adhere to strict standards for their phone cameras is a particularly big hurdle, according to Matt Miesnieks, a partner at VR and AR investment firm Super Ventures. He used to work at Samsung Electronics Co., the largest Android phone manufacturer. Apple, meanwhile, designs its own hardware and software into only one phone, so it can develop cameras to match ARKit's exact requirements.
"The reason Android can't compete with ARKit is that the original equipment manufacturers would need to effectively standardize their camera" systems, Miesnieks said.
After an early push with Tango and the struggles of the Google Glass head-mounted display, the search giant's AR efforts seem to have taken a back seat to other priorities for now. Glass is no longer available for consumers to buy, and Tango remains on just two handsets.
For Apple, ARKit is the foundation for a later, but larger push into AR-infused devices. The company has a team of engineers working on smart glasses, Bloomberg News has reported, and the next iPhone will likely include front- and rear-facing 3-D sensors when it's released later this year, analysts at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and others have predicted.
"The first step in making it a mainstream kind of experience is to put it in the operating system," Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook told Bloomberg News in a June interview. "This has a runway. And it's an incredible runway. It's time to put the seat belt on and go."
A 3-D sensor would permit improved accuracy when placing virtual objects in a real environment. That is essential for e-commerce applications in particular, said Ari Bloom, CEO of Avametric, a maker of AR tools for the fashion industry.
"It's super important that, if you're going to present something for sale to a customer that you show it extremely accurately," Bloom said, adding that doing so reduces costly product returns.
Apple gave Ikea Group early access to ARKit. The furniture giant's existing AR tool, which lets customers see how sofas and wardrobes might look in their homes, was built by Metaio GmbH, an AR startup Apple acquired in 2015. After the deal, many of Metaio's software tools stopped being available to developers. They're showing up again now.
"It's been closed for two-and-a-half years," said AR developer Guler. "What they've released now is a major, major update. I never saw anything close to this before."
-- Bloomberg News