Innovation

iOS 14 could make augmented reality as essential as GPS

The smartphone maker is working on something that could change perceptions.

Apple is working on improvements to the iPhone's augmented reality capabilities, and it could help the technology reach more people than ever before.

A 9to5Mac report Tuesday claimed the company is developing a new app for iOS 14 that could make finding out information easier than ever. The project, codenamed "Gobi," would enable users to hold up their phones and view virtual objects superimposed onto the camera view. Early code shows integration with Starbucks and the Apple Store, where a visitor to the latter could view information and pricing about a product by pointing their camera at the target.

See more: iOS 14 will probably work on every iPhone that runs iOS 13

The report claims it would offer some sort of application programming interface to third-party developers, which means others would be able to develop their own experiences. These would be triggered by a QR code or perhaps another sort of tag (AirTags, anyone?).

Imagine a future where visitors to a museum could watch dinosaurs come to life next to the fossils. Small, independent bookstores could make their book covers come to life. Perhaps underground metro systems could tell people above ground when the next train will arrive, just by pointing their camera at the station.

The augmented reality app is the sort of simplified integration that could help pave the way for greater uses, similar to how GPS gradually simplified and eventually supported a wide variety of apps. When the original iPhone launched in 2007, it came with a basic maps app that guessed at a user's approximate location through a mix of cellphone towers and Wi-fi points. The iPhone 3G in 2008 introduced a real GPS chip that greatly increased accuracy, which meant maps were more useful than ever.

The early boost for GPS helped encourage a wide variety of apps, supported by the App Store that also launched in 2008. Uber, founded in 2009, enabled GPS-powered car rides. Facebook rolled out "Places" support in 2010 where users could tag themselves at a location. FourSquare, Snapchat and Find My Friends all helped turn GPS into a more social experience. Games like Pokémon Go even turned mapping into a game.

All these apps helped transform the smartphone from a gadget in the pocket into a new way to experience the world. Mapping apps helped people navigate cities faster than ever, social apps helped friends meet up and games encouraged people to use their spaces in all-new ways.

The iPhone camera could be used to navigate the world.gece33/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

Augmented reality has been on the iPhone for a while, but "Gobi" could bring it to new heights. Apple introduced a series of developer tools in iOS 11 in 2017 called "ARKit," which simplified the process of creating augmented reality-powered apps. These tools have improved with each annual release, but they all involve users launching separate apps and remembering which one to use in the right situation. "Gobi" could help change that.

Where GPS benefitted from new iPhone hardware, so too could augmented reality benefit from planned new features. Apple is rumored to be planning a time-of-flight sensor for high-end iPhones this year, which would provide depth information for these apps. A rumored set of glasses, which would pair with the iPhone, could also make the experience all the more seamless.

The Inverse analysis

Improving the user experience is Apple at its strongest. The company is praised most when it takes existing technology and makes it more accessible. The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, the iPhone wasn't the first smartphone, and the iPad wasn't the first tablet. They all offered a straightforward user experience that brought those products to the everyman.

"Gobi" could turn out to be relatively niche, and augmented reality could remain relatively non-essential for most. But a single place to try to interact in augmented reality seems like something with appeal, which makes "Gobi" sound like a worthwhile gamble.

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