Augmented reality is about to have its "big moment", but it won't be Google Glass or any other headset that propels it into the mainstream – it will be platforms.
The end game is most definitely eyewear, but to get there augmented reality needs to be a) good enough and b) accepted enough. That will happen with platforms like Apple's ARKit and, now, Google's ARCore, which are about to open a portal to augmented reality like we've never seen.
Read this: Meet the people making magic with ARKit
ARCore has just been announced by Google, and will go head to head with Apple's equivalent later this year. While this seems very reactionary to what Apple is doing, let's not forget that the Big G has been working on AR for quite a long time. Remember Project Tango? It's been getting stronger since 2014, but its need for specialised hardware held it back. ARCore, a collaborative project between Google's Android and VR teams, is Tango reborn, with sights set on a much wider audience.
But how does it compare to what Apple's up to? Who's going to blow us away? Who will get to our face first? We've dissected the situation a little.
Getting to the Core of it
Like ARKit, ARCore is a platform for developers to build augmented reality apps on. Google has only made a preview version available right now, with a full SDK set to rollout this winter. It will be a little behind Apple's ARKit, which is set to drop with iOS 11 this September, but in the scheme of things the gap is negligible. Apple and Google will be reaching a significant audience by the end of 2017, and by this time next year, a vast number of people will have experienced the wonders of AR first hand.
While Google insists this isn't just a response to Apple, it's hard to believe the timing isn't calculated to be. AR is going to be massive, and Google can't afford to concede this space to one of its biggest rivals. Globally, Android has a market share of 80-90% – to call that a big opportunity would be an understatement. Granted, many of these phones won't be able to run ARCore apps, but over time Google plans to widen compatible devices. In fact, out of the gate Google says only Pixel phones and the Samsung Galaxy S8 will be capable, though it adds that it's working with a bunch of other companies including LG and Asus.
The point being, we're talking about AR on an Android scale. Tens of millions of people are about to see what the fuss is all about. And as for the quality? From what we've seen in the demos so far, ARCore is on par with Apple's offering. That should be no surprise, as we've marveled at the power of Tango first hand, and ARCore simply builds on that. The tech anchors these mirages into place while using lighting to make them appear like they're really there. Take a look below.
We actually saw some of these characters in action in our Tango demo at Google I/O this year – and yeah, it's impressively lifelike.
The end focus: AR we can actually wear
As exciting as all this is, there's a problem: phones aren't an ideal viewfinder for augmented reality. AR is meant to be immersive – holding up a smartphone for 15 minutes or longer at a time is not. Apple knows this. In fact, in its just-released best practices for building in ARKit, it cites user comfort as a key consideration. "Holding a device at a certain distance or angle for a prolonged period of time can be fatiguing," it reads.
Time and time again, stories surface about Apple's efforts to make AR glasses. AR on our Android and iOS phones will have compelling, useful applications, and we can't wait to see them, but it's just a stepping stone to wearable AR.
"But what about Google Glass?" you say. Glass was more an overlay onto the world, but didn't provide the more compelling "mixed" reality that ARCore offers up – though things like turn-by-turn instructions will still be incredibly useful on a wearable.
Glass was to AR eyewear what the Newton was to Apple's iPhone. It was a lesson in putting out technology before it was really ready, but it lives on in enterprise, healthcare, and even helping children with autism. We don't mourn Glass here at Wareable because we don't think it's really gone away; it's just distracting itself with other activities until the time is right for a big comeback, probably with ARCore – and hopefully a less offensive design.
Other players – and Microsoft's new dilemma
Microsoft was first on the mixed reality scene with HoloLens, but it now risks being caught on the back foot. ARCore should give Microsoft reason for pause. Microsoft's decision to target enterprise may pay dividends in the short term, but without the massive developer and user base Google and Apple are about to quickly procure, the long-term game looks less encouraging.
Without a massive smartphone market, how does it compete? HoloLens is mighty impressive, but it's expensive and has effectively no market share against iOS and Android. Maybe the answer is for it to nestle deeper into its enterprise niche and concede the consumer AR space to Apple and Google.
On the other hand, as Google and Apple push augmented reality into the mainstream, HoloLens could attract new interest and development. Magic Leap, which is coming up from the rear and (hopefully) set to blow our minds before long could help also accelerate the race to AR smartglasses. Some of these headsets might even support the ARKit and ARCore platform, depending on how Apple and Google decide to play it.
However it plays out, it's going to be fascinating to watch. The race for AR has just begun, and in a year's time the entire landscape is going to look a hell of a lot different.