ARKit has been getting a ton of attention recently, and rightly so. Several demos showcasing the technology from @madewithARKit have been going viral on twitter. I believe it's the most exciting thing in the AR/VR space since the Oculus Rift first came out. For some background, ARKit is an iOS 11 SDK that provides powerful, low-level access to camera/location sensor data for high-quality augmentation1. It was recently announced at WWDC 2017, and is currently available in beta preview to iOS developers, allowing them to get accustomed to the technology before the stable release this fall.
ARKit allows anyone with iOS programming experience to build AR applications on the iPhone. Typically, AR has been slow to customer adoption because: 1) expensive hardware (anything $99+) is necessary for a decent experience, 2) the lack of seamlessness and applications for the platform doesn't drive enough demand, and 3) lengthy set-up process necessary for these experiences. The beauty of ARKit is that it fixes all of these problems in a relatively cheap and effective way.
They've decreased the barrier to entry for developing and consuming AR applications, given that any iOS developer can now take advantage of the SDK. It's compatible with iOS, which opens it up to a much, much larger community than just game developers. Remember Pokémon Go? It took the world by storm by releasing a (fairly rudimentary) AR version of their popular game, driving millions of downloads. Just imagine when the rendering prowess and quality of camera data increases – Pokémon Go gets even better.
ARKit is a fantastic entry point for future, more realistic AR/VR hardware and software experiences, with this technology almost acting like a testbed for future technology.
Why is this exciting?
The technology still seems vastly underrated
I've heard arguments that ARKit "doesn't look nearly as good as traditional AR" or won't work because "users have to download new apps" (which apparently people don't download anymore? not true). While ARKit isn't nearly the most powerful augmentation you can get on the market, it's a great balance between access, form factor, and cost. Additionally, this platform will likely usher in a new wave of applications (and consequently, app downloads). Apple is democratizing access to a future platform differentiator!2
The technology adoption and readiness curves are intersecting
The beautiful thing about ARKit is that it's at the perfect intersection of the technology readiness and adoption curves. It's not too early (and not a toy like before), meaning the technology will work fairly seamlessly, leading to an overall good user experience. It's also ready for mass adoption, as anyone with an iPhone can take advantage of apps built with the SDK.
ARKit may signify the start of the "frenzy period" in augmented reality - one described well in this chart:
New technology typically follows an S-curve - initially, innovation seems slow, but once the hard problems are figured out, the excitement in the space changes drastically. Just as mobile is entering the scaling/maturity phases, and consequently the top of the S-Curve, AR is entering a new excitement period.3
Apple's done a great job of making sure the technology isn't too cutting-edge, as building great products atop these technologies in the early days is difficult. This leaves Google's Tango project somewhat behind. They've fallen plague to crazy AR experiences and specs, while Apple is focusing on experiences and shippability. Similar to the iPhone focusing more on the experience of the phone, rather than the specs, they're executing on the same thesis here with ARKit. They've played their 'last mover' advantage extremely well.Another good example of this phenomena in play is Snapchat's Lenses feature. Lenses, if you're not familiar, is a recently-released feature that allows users to superimpose new faces/objects into their environment, as so:
This feature isn't the most cutting edge technology, but IT WORKS. The adoption and readiness curves intersected at a good time, allowing Snapchat to build a product with strong usability. Maybe they'll release something with ARKit next ;)
It solves the problems currently plaguing AR really well
By not requiring expensive hardware to play, it allows a much larger set of users to experience AR. While it may not be the most cutting-edge or exciting technology, it'll immediately hit a scale of hundreds of millions of people. Most plays require consumers to adopt expensive, proprietary hardware and software, while this time it doesn't. This is truly building for the masses.
Additionally, you can take advantage of the App Store and its frictionless access to applications, circumventing the closed nature of AR apps today. I've personally tried out various applications and the experience has been fantastic - even in its current beta stage! Objects, for example, map to their environment really well.
Lots of initial entry applications
The first popular AR company may not be an AR company at all:
The first popular "AR companies" will be data/information companies that just happen to have an AR tool attached https://t.co/cfx4HyPmXY— Will Robbins (@whrobbins) July 27, 2017
Existing applications can leverage their data and user engagement advantages to build AR experiences in-app (if they make sense, obviously). This begs the question of what will be built past the initial wave of obvious applications – which is where this space gets really exciting. A few examples of applications I would love: trying out products from an online retailer, more intimate gaming experiences, and more personalized, higher-quality academic instruction.
It's right around the corner
Sometimes we forget how long stable technology takes to get built. However, ARKit won't fall prey to the 'perpetual beta' syndrome for the foreseeable future – it's available now. The stable release of iOS 11 is coming up in September! Anyone with an A9/A10-equipped device (such as an iPhone 6S or newer) will be able to experience ARKit in their devices.4
Open-source technology drives commoditization
Traditional AR plays have largely been closed source. Independent game and application developers want to keep their app sources private, and rightly so. The amount of quality AR developer talent is extremely limited, which is where ARKit can capture a lot of developer attention. Now that ARKit is available as an iOS SDK, and the iOS community has a strong culture of open-source software, we'll see a ton of cool applications built atop the technology. This makes the barriers to entry super low.
Additionally, Apple is building out a strong platform for developers to capture even more attention in the app store, such as pairing ARKit with existing Apple SDKs (Metal, SpiteKit/SceneKit) as well as new ones (CoreML).
"Hacking" new functionality into mobile
The beauty of technologies like mobile phones, is that while being relatively simple hardware-wise, they incorporate a ton of features into a small package. See:
A good example of this is the many heart rate sensors on the app store. Instead of needing to buy a complex heart rate monitor or counting beats manually, these apps utilize your camera + flashlight to track your heart rate. While this may not be the most accurate system, it still works quite well and all fits into one small package. Ditto for sleep tracking, GPS, crowdfunded maps, and sending data through the audio port. The iPhone (probably) wasn't designed with these applications in mind, but the platform is modular enough to allow them.
ARKit similarly holds this same potential for interesting non-traditional use cases. I'm excited for simple measuring tools (who carries around a ruler with them???), placement of shopping products in your home, and even more intimate guided city tours. See:
🤔 measuring a kitchen shouldn't be this satisfying...like, at all 🤔 https://t.co/7nhacasdnO → app by @SmartPicture3D 📏 pic.twitter.com/eztjNbDVyL— Made With ARKit (@madewithARKit) July 12, 2017
This post wouldn't be complete without some cool early demos showcasing the power of the technology. Here are some of my favorites:
ARKit + CoreLocation, part 2 pic.twitter.com/AyQiFyzlj3— Andrew Hart (@AndrewProjDent) July 21, 2017
🐍 Watch your step → inter-dimensional iPhone portals are closer than they appear 🧐 https://t.co/pqc0fRhUiQ ARkit demo by @nedd 👌 pic.twitter.com/zklYWr8CYk— Made With ARKit (@madewithARKit) June 30, 2017
🛋️ Redecorating job? Watch how we roll in 2017 😋 https://t.co/379OeOR8w4 by @AsherVo 🦄 pic.twitter.com/ej4JO2jqP8— Made With ARKit (@madewithARKit) July 21, 2017
If you're working on something with ARKit, or interested in building something with it, shoot me a message. AR is about to fuel a new wave of interest in consumer tech and ARKit is the lighter fluid!5
Special thanks to Will Robbins, Viktor Makarskyy, and Jay Bensal for reviewing this essay. I can be reached on twitter @niraj.