Announced Wednesday at the Worldwide Developer’s Conference, Apple’s new ARKit is a boon to augmented reality developers who want to see their smartphones and tablets better harness the ability of mobile devices to throw up digital objects and overlays onto real-world environments.
The new app is not simply Apple’s bullish dive into a field of technology that remains open, despite considerable spending by Facebook. It also lays the groundwork for the company to open an easy path for actively pursuing VR, in terms both hardware and software.
ARKit doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to Apple for the last few years. Apple CEO Tim Cook has gone on record several times that AR is the way to go. “There’s no substitute for human contact,” he said last year — meaning he was a bigger fan of the idea that simulation technology ought to bring the most out of existing environments rather than immerse users in a completely artificial one, like VR. Cook would prefer Apple instead focus on making AR more accessible to users and creating a better experience.
That chatter went as far as Cook himself declaring in Apple 2016 that Apple would eventually release an AR product, possibly in the form of a headset. No such hardware was even hinted at during Monday’s keynote address — and given the fact that ARKit is an iOS app, it seems clear Apple is looking instead to harness mobile devices themselves as the AR hardware.
There are many advantages to this — the biggest one ostensibly being that Apple doesn’t have to invest millions in developing and testing an entirely new product. The company believes it can simply use the iPhone and iPad’s increasingly efficient camera, motion sensing instruments, machine-learning software, and other parts to create a worthwhile AR experience simply presented on screen.
And this leads to the second advantage: it turns every mobile device into a potential AR platform. Every iPhone and iPad user can interface with AR content. Apple specifically wants to make ARKit “the largest AR platform in the world,” Craig Federighi told WWDC attendees on Monday. This is precisely what Cook alludes to when he discusses what Apple wants to do with AR: create an easy-to-use platform that does not limit its user base with hardware and software specifications. All you need is a device that belongs in the Apple ecosystem, and you have access to AR content.
That groundwork gives Apple a third advantage: building a substantial AR base of users gives the company an easy access into VR content. Although AR and VR are distinct, they are also incredibly related to one-another, and users who love AR probably have at least a casual desire to participate in VR experiences as well. It’s a gateway drug, and Apple knows how to get customers to buy into the next level.
Additionally, developers use similar tools and techniques to create both types of content. Anyone who creates something using ARKit will likely be thinking about what such content might look like on a VR platform. The feedback those developers give Apple will probably detail what the company needs to work on when it comes to the kind of camera and sensory instruments that an Apple VR headset needs to work.
And the release of new VR content-creation tools on the new macOS means Apple is already thinking about what future developers need to make VR environments. Apple’s VR and AR demos at WWDC were interactive in nature, but given how big iTunes and Apple Music is these days, it’s not hard to see Apple making it possible for users to pull up view-only VR content bought through iTunes, on Apple-made VR headsets connected to an iPhone, iPad, iMac, or MacBook.
That kind of reality is years away, but if Apple wants to jump into VR one day, it is implementing a pretty good strategy so far: monopolize the AR content industry through ARKit, and slowly-but-surely figure out what it will need to burst onto the VR scene most effectively.