On August 29th, Google announced its augmented reality software development kit (SDK) ARCore, which developers can use to build augmented reality applications Android devices: its response to Apple's ARKit.
This technology is set to revolutionise the way in which we interact with our devices and the world around us, and both will be available to a huge user base. ARKit is predicted to be available on more than 380 million devices, whilst ARCore will be a little more limited at first, launching on just the Google Pixel and the Samsung Galaxy S8 initially, before being rolled out to a similar size audience over time.
The competition between iOS and Android defined the smartphone era, and the news that Apple and Google will once again be directly challenging each other in almost identical spaces within the augmented reality field is incredibly exciting news for the sector.
The key differences
As you might imagine, the respective SDKs have sent a huge flurry of excitement through the development community with the ease at which impressive and compelling AR experiences can be created.
While the two look very similar at this early stage, there are some important differences, which will be noticeable to the consumer.
The first is that ARCore is likely to be able to replicate lighting much better. As it stands, both technologies assume there is a single universal light source that evenly lights a scene; however, Google has already teased the ability to model real-time sampling of light.
This will be particularly useful for AR apps that require room visualisation; for instance, apps that demonstrate how interior products might look in the home.
The second is that ARCore will also support a form of AR on the web. This is important, as the user is forced to download an app to use ARKit. This is full of friction, and can cause frustration for developers and consumers alike. Because of this, many brands and retailers have been trying to move away from dedicated apps, as it is proving difficult to get consumers to download and keep them on their phone.
But I thought Project Tango was Google AR?
Google's first foray into the mixed reality sector was actually Project Tango, which launched in 2014. The technology behind Tango was revolutionary, but it saw very little in the way of actual users, because the specialist technology it required meant that Google could only port it to two smartphones - meaning that the company could only target less than 0.01 per cent of the total smartphone market.
Comparatively, ARCore will require nothing more than an Android-enabled device, making it a much more exciting prospect for the mainstream consumer.
Interestingly, the two programs actually share a lot of the same source code. In fact, if you took Tango and tweaked it to remove the requirement for specialist depth camera sensor hardware, you'd essentially have ARCore.
This is a huge source of competitive advantage for Google, as it means that ARCore is already a much more thoroughly tested and mature software than ARKit. If we consider that Google has basically been developing for AR since Tango was launched in 2014, it's already had almost three more years of practice in the field.
If we look at this Tango demonstration video, we see that Google had a wealth of features lined up for Tango, many of which didn't rely on 3D depth perception technology. This means that, theoretically, these features could be ported to ARCore with almost no effort required, meaning Google has a huge head start on Apple in this regard.
The use-cases for these technologies
For me, this is actually much more important than the technologies themselves. When developing for AR experiences, it is vital for developers not to get bogged down in the technology.
You must remember that the first smartphone apps were nothing like those we see today. It took years for developers to begin producing compelling mobile experiences, which rivalled the desktop experience, and I predict the timeframe will be similar for AR.
The first demos have been very well received, but it will take months before developers find the first really compelling use-cases, and until there is a critical mass of users who have the required devices.
What is likely is that these use-cases will see the strongest pick-up in the areas of gaming, retail/e-commerce and social media; areas where interactive user experiences with exciting new technologies will drive transactions and engagement.
Consumer AR - the start of something much bigger?
The launch of consumer AR through ARKit and ARCore is merely the first step in a huge paradigm shift.
The last decade saw the smartphone become king, drastically changing how we do business, develop relationships and go about our day-to-day lives. Looking forwards, I predict that the next decade will be all about moving "beyond the screen" - a future wherein we move from a device you have to look at, to wearables that seamlessly and ubiquitously integrate with our daily lives.
The question on everybody's lips is who will have the upper hand - a question which is almost impossible to answer at this stage. Right now, both ARKit and ARCore are broadly similar in terms of what a developer can do, although with ARCore being more mature and sharing much of its source code with Project Tango, there are some subtle aspects that are better.
At launch it is certain that ARKit will gather most of the press, though. A massive upgrade, the iPhone X, has just been announced and, being launched with ARKit, I see this being one of the most glamorous and high profile launches since the original iPhone a decade ago.
My belief is that AR is just the first play of a major paradigm shift in the industry, and ultimately the consumer will be the real winner with two of the biggest tech companies in the world investing, acquiring and launching technology purely aimed at creating ground-breaking new experiences for them.
David Levine is the founder and CEO of mixed reality startup DigitalBridge, which specialises in using computer vision and machine learning to place virtual objects in consumers' homes.
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