How Apple leapt ahead of Google, Facebook and Microsoft on AR

Apple is fashionably late to the party, but it's arguably jumped to first place in the augmented reality race.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
7 min read
James Martin/CNET

We knew Apple CEO Tim Cook was keenly interested in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). But earlier this month, Apple finally -- and openly -- revealed its plans to the world.

Apple dedicated a significant portion of its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) to ambitious new plans to bring VR to your Mac, and AR to your iPad and iPhone.

Like Facebook, Google and Microsoft -- each of which also showcased AR and VR plans at recent dev conferences, too -- Apple is now part of a battle for what the future of computing might look like. 

And whether it's transporting you to faraway or imaginary places with VR, or making virtual objects appear out of thin air with AR, the company suddenly has skin in the game that it didn't just last month.

Apple's success is still far from guaranteed -- but it already seems like the company has some key advantages.

Apple didn't reply to requests for comment for this story.

Apple's AR tech works remarkably well

WWDC was the first time Apple publicly demonstrated its AR tech -- and yet, it may already have the upper hand. Apple's ARKit doesn't necessarily work any better than, say, Google's Tango -- but Google requires special phones bristling with optical sensors. 

We totally weren't expecting AR to be anywhere near this good with only the single camera of an off-the-shelf iPhone:

Overall, Apple's technique seems to do a pretty bang-up job of placing virtual objects into the real world, without even taking advantage of the second camera on the iPhone 7 Plus. (At WWDC, Apple announced that developers will soon be able to integrate calculations from that second camera, too.)

Plus, the tech doesn't only work in Apple's demos at WWDC: Developers who've installed the new iOS 11 preview build on their own iPhones and iPads are uploading YouTube videos that show it works in the varying environments and lighting conditions of the real world, too.

An AR marketplace that's already millions strong

While not every recent iPhone or iPad will be able to run AR apps, millions upon millions are already eligible -- and presumably, every new iPhone and iPad from here on out. You can't say the same about Google's AR initiative, which not only has to convince each Android hardware partners to put a big, presumably costly Tango sensor module in the back of their phones, but also sell consumers on those specialized handsets instead of sleeker ones without.

So far, only two Tango phones exist, of which one was a flop, and the other set to be a Verizon exclusive in the US this summer.

What if Google adopts a simpler, single-camera AR technique too? Android runs on so many different phones and software revisions that it might be hard to catch up. It could be even more of a challenge for AR rivals Facebook, Microsoft and Snapchat, which have to build apps that run on top of iOS and Android since they don't have popular phones of their own.

Quiet launch buys time


Apple's original iPhone didn't kick off the smartphone: it was predated by the BlackBerry, the Palm Treo, Windows Phones and other devices.

James Martin/CNET

Despite its reputation as an innovator, Apple has a long history of being fashionably late to the party. "For us, it's never been about being first to anything," Cook said in a WWDC interview with Bloomberg

"We didn't have the first MP3 player. We didn't have the first smartphone. We didn't have the first tablet," he continued, explaining why the company's new HomePod smart speaker -- unveiled alongside AR and VR announcements -- was arriving so long after Amazon's Echo and Google Home. "It's not about being first. It's about being the best."

In almost all those cases, Apple revealed its products with a flashy presentation to drum up consumer excitement. The company's move to AR and VR isn't quite the same; AR and VR are being telegraphed even earlier so app developers can begin to tinker around with the tech, and so new hardware and accessories can be lined up without piercing the veil of secrecy.

That's important, because so far, Apple's demos don't feel like game changers. An interactive Star Wars VR scene from Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic division? Cool, but you've been able to download a similar one for VR-ready Windows PCs for months now. A slightly more realistic Pokemon Go? Great, but that's so 2016. 

And while Apple's AR demo (from Peter Jackson's company Wingnut AR) was graphically quite impressive, it wasn't interactive.

But Apple didn't necessarily need to wow right out of the gate. Whether it's the next iPhone (expected in September) or even a rumored future standalone set of "Apple Glasses," there are still opportunities to deliver Steve Jobs-level oomph to millions upon millions of mainstream Apple fans who don't follow developer conferences to begin with.

Apple's VR stance is less clear

While Apple may have leapfrogged the pack on AR, its VR lead is a bit less sure.

To start: Apple execs didn't say the word "game" even once during the VR portions of the June 5 WWDC keynote. Even that slick Star Wars demo with Darth Vader was showing off how Lucasfilm can build VR experiences on the Mac, not necessarily how Mac owners will be able to experience such things for themselves.

And while Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney tells CNET that Mac users will be able to get VR games through Valve's Steam game platform, it's not clear if developers will hop on board. (Valve didn't respond to a question about whether it would commit to bringing its own upcoming VR games to Mac.)

If Apple is indeed creating a consumer market for VR experiences on Mac, it's doing so slowly. According to chipmaker AMD, Mac owners will need a Radeon Pro 580 or better for VR. Those graphics chips only appear in the single most expensive configuration of Apple's new iMac ($2,300), or the even pricier $5,000 iMac Pro coming in December, meaning the entry point for VR will be even more expensive for Mac than Windows to start.

Instead, recent MacBook Pro and new iMac owners will be able to plug in an external AMD-powered graphics dock for roughly $600 to get a similar level of performance -- but consumer support for external graphics won't arrive until early 2018. There's also no word from Nvidia on whether its popular rival video cards will work.

Still, Apple just signaled that now is the time to invest

Even if Apple isn't promising that iPhone and Mac end users will bend reality anytime soon, the mere fact that Apple is finally committed is a big deal for developers.

Now, they don't need to wait and wonder whether Apple will come along with a bigger, better, more refined idea that disrupts their entire business -- as Apple will often do.

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And if those devs decide to invest, Apple now offers the hardware they'll need to invest in -- which had been conspicuously missing until now. Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner, says, "If anything changed, it's that Apple now has more advanced Mac desktops and laptops that will officially support advanced interactive and real-time graphics capabilities, and that has to be good news for app and content developers who really want to use Apple products."

Says Epic's Sweeney: "I see Mac as now a first-class VR platform that's going to grow enormously and potentially be the most consumer friendly way to bring VR to the masses of computer users. I expect the industry to flock to it."

By flipping the AR/VR equation, Apple may take the lead


Google Glass had companies aim for a AR future that wasn't there yet -- and maybe still isn't.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's unclear, however, how much VR will matter now. Industry experts and sales forecasts have mostly agreed: VR tech is really just a stepping stone to AR, at least in the long term. Disney CEO Bob Iger is more excited for AR -- as is Apple's Tim Cook.

But originally, augmented reality seemed difficult to build for consumers. Companies like Microsoft, with its HoloLens headset -- not to mention Magic Leap -- were having an awful hard time building compelling see-through augmented reality headgear that regular people would actually want to wear. Facebook showed some promising AR filters for phones, but said it's years away from standalone AR hardware. Google, again, is struggling to get Tango AR phones on the market.

Then, along comes Apple with a revelation: millions upon millions of iPhones can be augmented reality devices now, with no need for specialized hardware. Rivals who thought they were ahead of the game by building out a VR ecosystem may find themselves eating Apple's dust.

Sure, Apple's definition of augmented reality is a simpler, older definition than most. For now, it's a picture window you keep in your pocket, rather than a set of glasses you wear.

But once iOS 11 hits later this year, Apple developers will have millions upon millions of those picture windows able to display images that will make last year's Pokemon Go look as quaint as Donkey Kong or Pac-Man.

Now they -- and Apple -- just need to give us something cool to play with.

Disclosure: Sean's wife works for Facebook as a business-to-business video project coordinator.

WWDC 2017: See everything Apple announced at this year's developer conference.

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