You may be familiar with ARKit, Apple's big bet on creating an augmented reality ecosystem of apps and developers before it eventually ships its AR smartglasses – rumoured to land around 2020. However, you may be less familiar with Google's version, ARCore.
Google introduced its AR platform in August 2017, shortly after Apple unveiled ARKit at its Worldwide Developer Conference earlier that summer. So, what exactly is ARCore and how does it work?
Essential reading: How ARCore will take on ARKit
We've pulled together everything we know so far to get you up to speed.
What is Google ARCore?
ARCore is an underlying software platform that will allow developers to easily create powerful augmented reality apps and experiences for Android-powered phones and devices.
Read this: Augmented Reality v Mixed Reality
It's technically a software development kit that developers will be able to study and tap into, so you don't have to pay too much attention to it. All you need to know is that when you see that something was created using ARCore, you'll know there'll be a certain level of quality to it because of the backend work that Google has been putting into the platform.
Furthermore, ARCore is built off of the back of Google's work with Project Tango, which it has been working on for the past three or four years.
Google realised that it has two billion Android-powered devices in the world, and it knew that it needed a way to give these devices a base level for augmented reality, which many people consider the future of computing. ARCore is Google's hopeful solution to that.
What about Project Tango?
Project Tango was Google's buzzy work into the world of augmented reality. The main difference between Tango and ARCore is that Tango needed specialised hardware. Namely, it needed very powerful hardware with dual cameras.
ARCore removes that from the equation. It's just software, which means people can use their own phones. They won't need to buy special hardware just to use AR. When you consider the breadth of Android devices out there, it makes little sense for Google's AR play to be stuck to special hardware.
That's why ARCore makes so much sense for the search giant, and why Tango doesn't. In fact, Tango is shutting down on 1 March, 2018, as it's simply redundant with ARCore around. Many of the Googlers working on Tango (as well as the developers) will simply have to move on to ARCore.
How it all works
ARCore uses three key technologies from your phone to determine how best to render the virtual objects it places in the frame. The first one is motion data from the phone's accelerometers and gyroscopes.
This allows ARCore to precisely know the position of your phone relative to the world. Similarly, it uses its camera to understand the world around it. For instance, ARCore is continually looking out for flat, horizontal surfaces it can place objects on top of.
AR all the time
The most complicated bit is something called "light estimation", which is a fancy way of saying that the phone is measuring the lighting conditions and trying to determine the best way to light the virtual objects so that they look mostly real. Bad lighting on a virtual object in a real environment can make it look off, which can break the immersion. Good lighting helps you forgive other things, like a low polygon count or cartoony art style, much more easily.
These three technologies weave together to give your phone an understanding of the world around you and how your phone relates to it. It can then speak to the app you're using, telling it how to best create an immersive augmented reality experience for you. That could be as simple as a sign that says what kind of restaurant you're looking at or a complex character walking around the world.
Even better for developers, it can be worked on with either Unity, Java or Unreal, giving developers good flexibility for their development environment.
What ARCore works on right now
So how can you actually use this stuff? Well, for now compatibility is limited to the Google Pixel, Pixel 2 and Samsung Galaxy S8. This is actually a little disappointing, considering that there are 2 billion Android devices out there.
ARKit, for comparison, is compatible with iPhones all the way back to the iPhone 6s. So there are going to be a lot more people that can get acquainted with ARKit than there are ARCore, at least for now. It's likely that Google will continue to work with its biggest Android partners to roll out ARCore to more users.
In the meantime, it does look like Google is using the limited compatibility as a way to sell people on Pixel phones. For example, ARCore-powered AR stickers based on Star Wars: The Last Jedi are only available for Pixel phones.
What it will work on in the future
Let's fast forward through the many, many Android phones that Google will likely bring ARCore to in the near and far futures. Instead, let's go to the future of our dreams, when AR-enabled smartglasses are plentiful.
It's likely that many of these smartglasses will turn to Android as an operating system. We've already seen it on some AR glasses, like the Everysight Raptor or Rokid's new AR glasses. Android becomes much more appealing as an operating system if it's got a healthy and robust ecosystem of AR apps ready to go when the hardware is. Enter ARCore, Google's big bet on the future of AR.
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