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Apple's AR apps will finally be able to stick things on walls

When iOS 11.3 launches, it'll pack tech that developers can use to make their augmented reality apps do things they couldn't do before.

Apple's ARKit 1.5 uses advanced computer vision to recognize images and integrate them into an AR scene. For instance, a demo app has you point your camera at a poster of a lunar module hanging on the wall to launch an interactive video of the 1969 moon landing on the Sea of Tranquility.

Games that let you bounce virtual balls off the floor and wall. Apps that make you feel like you're at the 1969 moon landing after pointing your phone at a poster.  

These are a couple of the new things you'll be able to do on your iPhone and iPad with Apple's augmented reality update, ARKit 1.5. The software, which is part of the upcoming iOS 11.3 release, will pack new features to enable richer apps. That includes the ability to places items on vertical walls and doors, not just horizontal surfaces like tables. It also has image detection for signs, posters and artwork, and it supports higher resolution for the real-world images you see on your screen.

CNET got an early peek at the sort of apps developers will be able to make using ARKit 1.5, such as those demo ball game and moon landing apps. (Sadly, they won't actually be available, unless some enterprising developers create them.)

Apple also included the ARKit news in a broader set of announcements Wednesday previewing features of iOS 11.3. Notably, the update to iOS will give iPhone users new ways to keep tabs on the health of the phone's battery and whether it needs to be serviced. Users will also be able to choose whether to turn off a key power management feature. That follows from an uproar in late 2017 over Apple's slowdown of older iPhones to offset battery problems.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple iOS 11.3 packing in AR, more animoji, battery controls

Also coming in iOS 11.3:  a feature called Business Chat that will let users communicate directly with businesses from within Messages; four new animoji (lion, bear, dragon and skull) for iPhone X users; and a new Health Records feature designed to bring together hospitals, clinics and the existing Health app to make it easy for consumers to see their medical data from multiple providers.

The company said that the AR, animoji and health records features will arrive in iOS 11.3 in the spring, while the Business Chat feature will launch in beta with the public availability of iOS 11.3. The battery features, it said, will come in a later iOS 11.3 beta release.

Apple made ARKit 1.5 available to developers on Wednesday. Now it's up to developers to release apps that take advantage of the features when iOS 11.3 is available for all users.

Augmented reality overlays digital images on the real world via  special headsets or your phone. Apple last year finally jumped into AR with the introduction of ARKit, which lets developers more easily and quickly incorporate AR features into their apps for iPhones and iPads. The company joined a myriad of companies betting on AR as one of the hottest trends in tech.

About 2,000 AR apps have hit the market since the software launched in September with iOS 11. Popular apps include Ikea's software that lets you virtually furnish your apartment or Pokemon Go's update that allows you to catch more lifelike digital monsters.

Apple CEO Tim Cook last year compared AR to the impact of the smartphone on the world's population. "We don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market. It's for everyone," Cook said. "I think AR is that big. It's huge."

Onward with ARKit

There are three major advances in ARKit 1.5. First is the ability to understand a scene better and detect vertical planes instead of just horizontal ones. Your apps will be able to tell if there's a wall or door in the scene and fix virtual items on it (something not possible in current iPhone AR apps), as well as better detect irregular shapes, like knowing a table is circular.

A demo game I played let me bounce a virtual ball off the floor and onto a round, dart board-like target on the wall. If the balls didn't know the wall was there, they'd simply keep going, seemingly into infinity. Now they stick to the target.

Now playing: Watch this: Pokemon Go's ARKit update makes you a sneaky bastard

ARKit 1.5 also uses advanced computer vision to recognize images and integrate them into an AR scene. For instance, another demo game I used had me point my phone's camera at a poster of a lunar module hanging on the wall. That launched an interactive video of the Apollo 11 moon landing on the Sea of Tranquility in 1969. I could hear the astronauts' voices in the background as the virtual module came to rest on the moon's surface. Tapping a button let me exit the video and shrink the module down onto a conference room table to get a better look at it. 

The third feature with ARKit 1.5 is higher resolution for what you're seeing on the device, 1080p instead of 720p. Before, when you were using an AR app such as Ikea Place, the real-life items you'd see in the room, like your furniture, would look a little blurry. Those images now will be much crisper and clearer.

ARKit's new features could enable more immersive augmented reality apps than we've already seen. Schools, museums, art galleries, movie theaters and other institutions can create software like that moon landing app, transporting you to a place after you point your phone at a sign or poster. Or they could allow for more accessibility-friendly apps, sign-recognition software and other creations from developers.

Originally published Jan. 24 at 5:30 a.m. PT.
Updated at 6:17 a.m. PT: Added information about additional features in iOS 11.3 beyond the ARKit changes, along with the expected release timing for iOS 11.3.

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