At the 2018 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the smartphone industry's preeminent launch- and schmooze-fest, Apple and Google's Android were doing what they do best: competing with each other over incremental improvements. In this case, the two smartphone operating system giants were fighting over augmented reality.
Today, AR is mainly the province of smartphones and specialized devices like the Microsoft HoloLens. (In the near future, it could include projecting images onto tabletops, windshields—anything with a flat-ish surface.) Apple and Android headset manufacturers like Samsung and HTC love AR because it's tech-intensive; customers with older phones need to buy newer, more expensive models if they want to download decent AR experiences from the app store. Platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat also like AR for a more obvious reason: Addictive AR translates into obsessive engagement. And both Google and Apple are courting advertisers, agencies and developers with tool kits to build AR products in the feverish hope that some form of AR advertising grabs a pop-culture moment like "Pokémon Go" did.
Getting to scale
For all that drooling commercial optimism, however, the fact remains that creating augmented reality experiences is still a pain in the ass. There's only a relatively small pool of developers with true AR chops and building AR experiences takes longer than a conventional web or app project.
Reducing the time and expense of building AR seems likely to radically expand the universe of what makes it into the marketplace. Which explains why both Apple and Google want to open up the AR universe for developers.
Apple announced details of its forthcoming iOS 11.3 in late January, with big changes to the operating system's ARKit, its AR toolbox for developers. According to a rather breathless Apple press release, "The introduction of ARKit with iOS 11 puts augmented reality into the hands of hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad users, making iOS the world's biggest AR platform." ARKit now supports virtual objects on vertical surfaces like walls and doors, and can integrate real-world signs, posters and artwork into AR experiences.
The company cites use cases such as interactive museum exhibits or bringing movie posters to life. Apple also significantly improved camera resolution and focusing to help people suspend disbelief when using iPhones or iPads for AR.
Google, not to be outdone, launched the 1.0 version of its ARCore framework just before MWC. A competitor to ARKit (Snapchat parent Snap is a major supporter), ARCore lets developers create AR-enabled experiences for Android phones. Here, though, Google is paying a price for Android's open, laissez-faire platform: Because there are so many Android phones with different technical specifications, ARCore is currently compatible only with the Google Pixel family, newer Samsung phones, LGE's V30 family and a handful of other phones.
Together, Apple and Google stand to crack the market wide open. "With the advent of ARKit and ARCore, we're seeing brands move to phone-based AR that has the potential to reach hundreds of millions of handsets," says Unity Technologies Global Head of VR and AR Tony Parisi.
The expense of building AR experiences, he adds, traditionally meant that AR in the advertising world was limited to big-budget rollouts on devices with a limited reach like the HoloLens. Google's and Apple's competing tool kits are significant steps toward democratizing the situation.
Other major industry players are also steering developers toward
AR. Shortly before MWC, Facebook unveiled News Feed support for the
standard glTF 2.0 file format, which lets users embed 360-degree 3-D objects with realistic lighting and shadows in Facebook content. Advertisers such as Lego, Wayfair and gaming firm Supercell have already released 3-D posts for users.
Although the audience for those was mainly early adopters who tend to get frothy about any new tech, it signals a pathway for Facebook and its rivals to make filthy lucre from the advertising industry with AR.