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Apple Gets Real About Mobile AR

Augmented Reality will soon be everywhere

Last month, we discussed the growth of accessible and affordable Augmented Reality. New headsets from Lenovo and Mira Labs, plus the latest Google Glass Enterprise Edition, heralded the beginning of AR focused consumer devices. The setbacks, though, were obvious. A lack of content, compromised quality and overall cost made mobile compatible products less appealing. It seemed safe to conclude that mainstream mobile AR would happen, but what was less certain was exactly when this would be. Funnily enough, many of us already use mobile AR in the form of selfie customisation app Snapchat. Phone based features are obviously a far cry from the quality experiences possible with high end products like Microsoft HoloLens. . . but then, of course, Tim Cook announced the release of three new iPhones.

A match made in tech heaven?
On September 12th, Apple revealed a whole host of new  products including the iPhone 8, 8s and X. The first two models come with 4K graphics and a 12 mega pixel camera sensor, installed specifically to create optimal AR experiences. Multiplayer AR app ‘The Machines’, which is exclusive to iOS, was even demonstrated on stage. But the iPhone X, described by Tim Cook as the device that would “set the path for technology for the next decade”, went even further. Instead of typing a passcode or using a unique fingerprint, users can unlock the iPhone X via Face ID. Face ID creates a mathematical image of your face over time using neural networks, so you can unlock your phone simply by looking at it. It was only a matter of time before this application of facial recognition tech materialised, but the feature is accompanied by a rather more novel setting called ‘Animojis’. This allows users to edit emojis with their own personal expressions and voices, as demonstrated by the Apple big shots. In short, the new iPhones are made for mainstream AR. Even the wireless charging feature is an enabler for on the go experiences. Apple’s competition in the market is tough, however, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and rising startups like Mira Labs. The race for the most popular consumer AR product is well and truly on.

The impact of mainstream mobile AR
While the iPhone X is far from the only phone to support AR content, it’s the first to place so much focus on mixed reality technology. In some respects, this is a bit of a gamble. While the Pokémon GO success story made AR a household name, what it also did was show that in many cases consumers aren’t that interested in the technology. In fact, popular gaming website Polygon advised readers to turn off AR for an easier, more aesthetic display. The apps developed for the iPhone, then, need to succeed where Pokémon GO appears to fail. If experiences and games like ‘The Machines’ can convince consumers, then the adoption curve of mobile augmented reality will rocket. What’s more, by putting serious emphasis on AR, Apple has forced competitors to play copycat. This won’t just accelerate the mainstream adoption of AR – it will set it as standard.

John Straw, D/SRUPTION co-founder and expert on disruptive technologies, says that the release has legitimised AR in the same way the tech giants solidified the personal music market with iTunes. “It’s now ‘safe’ for developers to start bringing their AR apps into one billion iPhones,” he says. “Soon, everything you see will be augmented.”

Of course, on the go AR isn’t limited to personal devices. In his closing remarks at DSE 2017, John reminded delegates that AR technology will eventually move inside our bodies, placing a constant digital overlay over our surrounding environment. For now, though, Apple has thrust mobile AR into the spotlight.

The iPhone X represents the start of a new standard in mobile technology, slowly but surely removing the barriers between real and digital worlds with high quality AR. But Apple is just one of many companies with an interest in mixed reality, and the introduction of high quality, consumer focused products has really only just begun. Either way, the Silicon Valley giants have set a clear precedent for the devices we constantly carry with us. The future is augmented, and that’s a reality.

Will other technology companies follow suit and release AR enabled phones? Could mobile Virtual Reality eventually challenge mobile AR? Who is Apple’s biggest competition in the race to dominate consumer AR? Share your thoughts and opinions.