What Apple's new AR bowling game taught us about the future

Running around like a maniac in Swift Strike shows how far augmented reality has come... and maybe it's getting ready for a headset.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read

A giant bowling game showed us the best features of ARKit 3.

Screenshot by Chris Pavey/CNET

I'm scrambling around a wooden floor, trying to fend off a giant virtual ball with my iPad Pro. It's a bowling alley, but it feels like a basketball court. A crowd cheers. Eli faces off across from me, pushing his iPad Pro forward, launching the ball at my face. I lose my footing. The ball shoots past me. I run after it. Too late. The pins were knocked down. I lost. Again.

But we're on a big court that's totally empty, except for us and our test iPads . We see the big ball, bowling pins, and us, running around among these things as if they're in our shared space. Welcome to Apple's imminent AR future: fast-paced, collaborative, and... still, headset-free.

While Microsoft has HoloLens 2 and Magic Leap has its magic AR goggles, Apple -- like Google -- is exploring augmented reality through flat screens. But while Google's recent AR efforts focus on utility and quick assistance, Apple is pushing even more realistic graphics and effects. Apple unleashed a number of AR tools at its WWDC developer conference that are coming this fall, including a whole AR-making toolkit called Reality Composer. ARKit 3, which needs a recent A12-equipped iPhone or iPad to do its most impressive effects, is what Swift Strike is meant to show off. And it shows how far things have come in a year.

Watch this: Apple’s new two-player AR arcade game at WWDC is crazy

It's a multiplayer AR game, much like the one I played in this same space a year ago that had me knocking down blocks on a table with a ball. But that game last year was pretty stationary. This time, I ran around a far larger area, and so did my opponent (Eli Blumenthal, who's never played an AR game quite like this before).

I came away thinking that all I was really missing was the convenience of wearing a pair of AR glasses so I would not have to worry about looking down at an iPad all the time.


What the game looked like in reality: empty space, two guys with iPads.

Scott Stein/CNET

Occlusion is the coolest magic trick that Swift Strike offers. If people pass in front of AR things on an iPhone, like a virtual IKEA sofa, the illusion is shattered. But now ARKit 3 lets people walk in front and block the objects, as if they're really behind in the distance. It can layer virtual objects among real people... or layer real people into virtual AR things in a landscape. Minecraft Earth will use this trick, and so does Swift Strike.

While used for demo purposes, it's unclear if Apple will ever release this game to the masses.

To see it in action, check out the video in this story. Occlusion wasn't perfect, and sometimes objects flickered between being behind and in front of us. Sometimes objects became semi-transparent, either by game design or something else. But the realism that was added by occlusion was significant. Coupled with haptic vibrations on the iPad every time we hit the ball, iIt suddenly started to feel like we were stepping into the game.

But again, we're on an empty court, looking around for things on an iPad screen. That's fine when the ball is right in front of me, but really hard when the ball gets pushed past me and I try to find it again. I think I scored an own-goal when I backed up and pushed the ball when it was behind me. A 3D AR headset could help, obviously. Apple's not there yet, nor have any plans been announced, but one will reportedly arrive as early as next year.


Eli and I are holding our ground against the giant virtual ball (we feel haptics in the iPads).

Screenshot by Chris Pavey/CNET

CNET's Eli Blumenthal, who played with me, sees it as a stepping stone toward immersive arcade attractions, too: "When we stepped onto the wooden floor to play Swift Strike, a demo of a bowling-like app built using the company's ARKit 3 software, the experience was different. It was interactive and engaging," he said. "The iPad Pros Scott and I were holding tracked our movements running around to push a virtual ball into stacked virtual bowling pins. The game registered the force with which we exerted ourselves to move the ball and tracked us even as we ran across the space."

"As companies like Sandbox VR and VR World NYC open up virtual reality arcades around the world, it's not hard to imagine this technology expanding to malls, parks and events, providing a new medium for people to come together and interact."

While multiplayer AR became available last year on iOS 12 , bigger steps have been taken this year that should make games like this be a lot more possible. Shared maps are possible, where players scan a real space and collaboratively build a map that is shared between devices. Anchored objects, that are meant to stay in space and be seen by multiple people, can stay persistent. I think about Minecraft Earth, which I haven't played yet. It aims to unleash a lot of these ideas at once. Multiplayer AR games could finally start becoming the norm instead of the exception.

Eli and I both agreed that this isn't AR, perfected. This is only a demo, and it's well in advance of the release of ARKit 3 inside iOS 13 and iPadOS this fall. But it's a sign of a faster, more fluid AR world to come.

I need to get better shoes.