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Apple's multiplayer AR vision of the future works pretty well so far

A whole new world of collaborative AR apps and games are coming in iOS 12. Here's a first taste.

James Martin/CNET

I'm leaning over a table with nothing on it, playing with someone across from me. We're holding iPads. On our screens, a field of blocks are laid out. We're launching slingshots, knocking each other's slingshots out to try to win first. This is ARKit 2, part of iOS 12. And it's all about multiplayer.

This is the second time I've tried multiplayer phone and tablet AR this year: The first was at Google's developer conference just weeks ago, using an iPhone and Google Pixel. Google calls its cross-platform cloud-based AR tech Cloud Anchors (one app already uses it).

Apple's multiplayer AR, meanwhile, doesn't necessarily have to be cloud-based. But it's similarly surprising, and similarly captivating. Trying an AR experience out on your own is one thing, but sharing the experience with someone else lends it an extra dose of convincing immersion. Suddenly, augmented reality feels a lot more real.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple's ARKit 2 goes multiplayer on iOS 12
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If you've ever used Apple's augmented reality tech on iOS, you'll know how convincing it can be for a fun pick-up game of AR hoops, or placing Ikea furniture at your train station. Multiplayer gaming feels similarly seamless and smooth, and the catapult-block-topping game I played with colleagues, SwiftShot, is quick and kinetic. The graphics and physics are real and persistent enough that it seems strange to see an empty table as we finish playing.

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We're playing, and nothing is on the table.

James Martin/CNET

AR on phones, last year, was a single-player experience. This year, apps will be able to tap into multiplayer for same-room experiences like Lego, or large-scale hundreds-of-players events in open fields.

Multiuser AR could be the beginning of larger-scale, persistent layers of augmented reality that layer on top of the real one, worlds that many people could see or interact with at once. How that all gets managed, or juggled, remains to be seen. 

Some apps will work multiplayer AR magic locally. Others will use the cloud. Apple's ARKit 2 will play nicely with Google's Cloud Anchor tech, too, according to Apple, but Apple representatives at WWDC said that ARKit 2 could have better performance when used locally.

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SwiftShot with two players. Imagine this with dozens.

James Martin/CNET

The game demo we tried, SwiftShot, proved how well AR on iOS already works. Objects seemed to track smoothly on the large wooden table (would it work as well on a smaller table, or in different lighting? I didn't get to test.)

Just like my time with multiplayer AR at Google's demo, I kept thinking of the other possibilities down the road: Art projects. Virtual museum exhibits. Walking through giant 3D models of the human body, each person exploring different areas at the same time. Team members going over 3D plays of a recent game.

The other multiplayer ARKit 2 demo I tried was Lego's blend of real bricks and virtual bricks, building models that several people could play with and walk around. I could see this in my kid's playroom, or in Lego stores... or even, as a future AR instruction guide for building Legos.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple's Greg Joswiak says AR is going to be huge
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Lenovo dabbled in an early form of multiplayer AR gaming with its holographic Star Wars Jedi Challenges headset earlier this year. Adopting ARKit into a headset could be great, but it's not in Apple's immediate plans, according to Greg Joswiak, Apple's VP of iOS, iPhone and iPad Product Marketing. For now, ARKit remains technology that will live in 2D phones and tablets, making 3D worlds appear on flat handheld screens. But multi-user AR, plus Apple's cross-iOS support of a common format for 3D AR assets, could make for all sorts of intriguing combinations.

Maybe Apple's AR will eventually move to a headset. In the meantime, you'll see a lot more ways to play in augmented worlds with friends in the fall, and it's going to be pretty fun when it all gets here.

WWDC 2018: Everything Apple just announced.

iOS 12: Siri shortcuts, group FaceTime and "Memoji" -- Animoji of you.