iOS 11's best feature lets you put a couch anywhere you want

Commentary: Apple's amazing augmented reality experiences are here, and don't need a new iPhone.

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
iPhone 8 Plus

Weird things floating in the real world: AR is about to flood your iPhone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPhone 8 is an augmented reality phone. But guess what? The iPhone in your pocket might very well be, too.

Before the new iPhones were announced, I told some coworkers that I thought ARKit and its apps -- which promise to place virtual things in our real world -- would be a bigger story than the new iPhones. Most disagreed.

Now, the iPhone X is definitely eye-catching. It's exciting. It's not arriving until November, though. Meanwhile, the similar-looking iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are boasting new processors that are optimized for AR.

Watch this: 8 cool ARKit apps for the iPhone and iPad

The iPhone 8 doesn't seem tremendously exciting, except for its speed boost and AR possibilities. You don't even need a new iPhone to use Apple's new ARKit-enabled apps in iOS 11

I've been tweeting some of my demos since the review of the new iPhones went live. As new apps arrive, like a preview of Ikea's furniture-placement app Ikea Place, I'm getting even more impressed. So are people who see the demo videos. if you're not familiar with AR or don't know what it does, the videos below do a good job of demonstrating it. Here's what AR on a phone can do.

So far, new AR apps already look amazing

ARKit, a toolkit for augmented reality in iOS 11, doesn't need the new iPhones. It works on phones going back to the iPhone 6S. Most of time with AR has been on the new iPhone 8 models, but, in demos we've seen on iPhone 7 Plus phones and other devices, it already looked fantastic. 

Stay tuned for further testing now that iOS 11 is here, but you're already probably able to see for yourself. This demo of Sky Guide was captured live using iOS 11 Screen Capture on the iPhone. Some commenters didn't even believe it was a real-time demo.

In fact, Apple's iOS 11 AR looks so good that it drove Google to approach the same idea with ARCore. It overshadowed Google Tango. It suddenly became the best phone AR anyone has seen, effectively.

Back at Apple's developer conference in June, it seemed like a big deal. Now, it seems like the key to Apple's next wave of app development.

iPhone 8, iPhone X and AR: how much better can it be?

Apple says that the A11 Bionic chip has better graphics to handle improved processing needed to make AR render properly, plus improved gyro and accelerometer sensors that will be key for accurate camera-plus-motion-sensor tracking. To make virtual things appear in the real world on your phone, syncing the two is critical.

In brief demos I tried of the iPhone 8 using AR apps at Apple Park after the iPhone event, everything looked great. But, everything looked great before, too. I found it hard to differentiate. Then again, without side-by-side comparisons, it's really hard to spot differences. It's like two VR demos months apart in different rooms.

One thing to consider is that the iPhone X will be able to achieve AR effects with its front camera, too. Enhanced Snapchat, talking poop emoji and maybe a lot more.

Watch this: How good is the iPhone 8?

But, if you're not waiting for the X, the 8's advantages in AR might, for now, be incremental.

I'd say that Apple's done a good enough job on existing phones that it's very possible the "AR advantage" on the iPhone 8 will be really hard to appreciate. For now.

The best iPhone tech this year doesn't even need a new iPhone, and that's great

Apple's move to involve existing phones with ARKit is incredibly smart, though. It is driving an insane number of apps and experiments over the last few months. It's creating buzz. And, it'll insure that there will be a lot of amazing augmented experiences arriving very quickly. It might feel like the rise of iPhone games when the App Store first launched in 2008.

The iPhone X has front-facing AR tech and Face ID that allows emoji puppetry, and promises of facial controls for all sorts of things. But the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus doesn't. This year, for the time being, the best tech on Apple's new iPhones isn't something that lives on the new iPhones exclusively at all.

That means it won't exclude those who don't upgrade, and could reach far more people. That's good for developers, good for regular users and, in the end, it's really good for Apple's AR vision to gain an even stronger foothold. Because, to the average person, AR is confusing, maybe gimmicky and something that needs to be eased into. Like VR or any new tech. But I find it more promising than wireless charging, or camera upgrades. That's this year's biggest leap forward on the iPhone by a long shot.