At the beginning of the year, Virtual Reality (VR) was the biggest and most exciting new piece of tech.
Yes, there were a few things in the Augmented Reality (AR) sphere—Pokémon Go for one—but the technology felt more gimmicky than fully developed. VR, on the other hand, felt like the future, it offered players who could afford it a chance to transport themselves to a fictional world with endless possibilities, and it was up the creators to make it a reality. It was the future of computing, at least until Apple unveiled ARkit on stage at WWDC.
This simple announcement—a new piece of tech that would work on the phone millions of people already had in their pockets—was revolutionary. With this announcement, countless concepts suddenly became possible: the ability to view fictional worlds through the lens of your smartphone. It was something that felt like it was out of Star Trek. It sounded too good to be true, another flash in the pan that in the end would go nowhere. How could your phone map something in the real world and have it work? This is the question many people where asking themselves. Yet when iOS 11 hit devices, the promise of AR suddenly became a reality.
ARkit as a set of tools allowed developers to push beyond the phone screen. It gave the creators of games the ability to bring back the “wow factor” that has not been seen since the first iPhone hit the stage. The technology is simple and yet complex; it gives developers a set of details about the world around the phone. Using constants and the sensors on the device it provides a series of numbers and factors that developers can then take and plug into their game. These datasets can be used on things from a virtual pet dragon to a piece of home design software. With ARkit, a whole new breed of games suddenly became a possibility, and the crazy thing is, they all worked as advertised.
I will admit, before testing games and apps built with ARkit, I was just as skeptical. It was a neat concept, but I felt there was no way it could map to the real world in a way that is believable and actually useful. Yet, sitting down with some developers, seeing the apps, and talking to them about the process quickly made me realise the power of ARkit, and the possibilities it holds.
Apple is not alone in the world of AR, but it’s the way they implemented it, the simple elegance that makes building apps easy and forces everyone else to play catchup. For a new tool to be useful, it needs to be easy to apply, and ARkit is. Talking to Chris Ye, CEO, Uken Games about the ease of implementing AR into Kings of Pool in a “matter of days” outlined exactly why AR kit has the potential to be a gamechanger. In a short amount of time, the technology allows for a mobile game to go beyond and quickly become a game you and a group of friends can play for hours in your living room. It transforms a coffee table into a pool table.
For myself, seeing Tsuro played in AR was one of the most exciting demos I had. I love board games, and I love the concept of getting together with a bunch of friends to play. While the AR version of Tsuro cannot compete against playing with a physical game, the team at Thunderbox Entertainment have managed to make the next best thing. Passing around the phone, and seeing the board in all its minute detail was fantastic. The attention to detail, mixed with AR quickly allowed me to suspend disbelief as I watched a game being played. Yet it was Kings of Pool that really messed with the sense of reality the most. Playing the quick game demo, I found myself walking around, carefully trying to avoid the digital table. Even when I knew it was not real, and I would not hit anything, I still caught myself doing it. I was not alone, all the other people demoing the game did the same thing. The simple fact the pool table “feels” like it is part of the real world makes it blur that line between digital and reality and envelops the player in that game.
There have been games that used AR in the past, even the Nintendo 3DS had the ability at launch. One thing that held the system back however, and made it so it would stay out of reach for the mainstream, was the need for some physical object to make the system work. For the Nintendo 3DS, it was QR codes, and while they are easy to print out, it was this extra step that held people back. There were games such as Pokémon Go that managed it without the need of QR codes, but basically all they did was overlay a digital image over a camera image and GPS data. It worked for a few minutes of fun, but without data of the physical world, it was basically a gimmick more than a full-fledged feature. These newest tools offer the promise of a much more integrated system, one that if done right can link the physical world and the digital world.
This is never truer than when looking at games for children. There are countless games currently on the App Store aimed at kids. Many of them are fun and provide great value for your time. Yet it is rare to find a game that although targeted at kids, can actually keep an adult’s interest—but with AR this is possible. While a game may be simplistic, seeing it spring to life on a living room floor is astounding. Thomas & Friends Minis, a game from Budge Studios, demonstrates how this is possible. Sitting down in a makeshift living room for the demo, I felt like a kid again. Seeing the little railway springing to life through the help of the iPad screen was exciting. A full living trainset was suddenly chugging away without any mess or cleanup. It is something that could be possible with QR Codes or other methods, but for kids, the ease makes it wondrous.
Apple is just leading the charge, and Google and Facebook are also making a play for AR—but Apple does have an advantage. Since it knows the hardware and software of each device, it can use this info to ensure ARkit has accurate stats for the magic to happen. It will only be a matter of time before Google and Facebook catch up, but right now Apple is in the lead, and as more developers work with ARkit, the gap will only get wider.
Currently ARkit apps will work on any iPhone 6S and up, along with the latest two generations of the iPad. It is still in its early days, but we are already seeing many concepts that are astounding to try out, even for a quick demo. It is the new technology that the industry needed to push ideas forward. Where the first iPhone pushed the industry into the world of ubiquitous mobile computing, AR has the potential to be just as impactful. In the hands of creative people, anything is possible, and ARkit makes that process easier than ever before. If development keeps up the pace at which it is currently moving, it will be an exciting time for mobile technology.