Get ready for the Apple AR revolution

The next version of the iPhone is expected to be announced in September. Already there’s been a lot of speculation about new Augmented Reality (AR) features in iPhone 8. AR is when you overlay 3D objects and information onto the physical world.

It’s not like this is a new technology in smartphones. Last year’s biggest tech story was arguably Pokémon GO, an AR game that worked just fine on older iPhones and plenty of Android devices. But AR on phones is about to take a giant leap forward. iPhone 8 is rumoured to come with multiple depth sensing cameras and enhanced localization capability. Not to mention a faster, more efficient processor.

All these hardware improvements will make Pokémon GO an even better experience for your teenagers. But far more importantly, iPhone 8 will usher forth a whole new era of AR apps. We’ll soon discover there’s more to AR than chasing cartoon characters around a park.

For example, think about how you shop for furniture nowadays. Usually it’s a case of driving down to a nearby furniture shop, fending off an over-zealous salesperson, and trying to imagine what something – let’s say a chair – will look like in a particular room. But with an AR app on your phone, you can flip that experience. Now you just stay at home, open up the shop’s AR app on your phone, and overlay a 3D image of the chair onto your room. You’ll be able to flip through different colours and patterns, change the dimensions, and more, until you get the match you’re looking for. Okay you may still want to go down to the store afterwards to sit on the chair and make sure it’s physically comfortable. But you’ll now know what to say to the salesperson, as you’re kicking your feet up. Something like: yes this chair is a perfect fit for my room, but I need it in green.

Apple is already encouraging developers to build this kind of AR app, with a development platform it released in June called ARKit. In fact someone has developed a prototype of the furniture app I just described. There’ll be no end to other retail applications for AR apps. The same try-at-home principle can apply to clothing, TV sets, appliances, cars, and much more.

AR apps will be just as useful and prolific when you’re out and about. Imagine going to a restaurant and instead of reading a text menu, you simply scroll through 3D photos of the menu items. Or going to the supermarket and scanning items of food for cooking tips, in-depth nutritional information, or videos showing where the product came from.

In short, AR will open up a new world of 3D apps for smartphones. Indeed this could be the biggest expansion of apps in the App Store since the iPad came along in 2010. Certainly the Apple Watch didn’t inspire many useful new apps, when it was released in 2015. But unlike the watch, there are hundreds of potential use cases for AR.

The AR market is wide open for Apple too, because no other company has cornered it. Google has at least put a toe in the water, with its experimental AR platform called Tango. The trouble is, so far only two smartphones support Tango. The first, Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro, was rated a “disaster” by the tech blog Ars Technica. The Asus ZenFone AR is the second Google Tango smartphone, but it’s had a limited release so far.

Interestingly, when Apple makes AR widely available later this year, New Zealand may be uniquely well placed to take advantage. Apple reportedly opened an office in Wellington earlier this year and hired several ex-Weta Digital employees. So kiwi talent is obviously in high demand for this technology.

Also a local startup success story, 8i, released an AR app for iOS and Android in June, called Holo. The app is being marketed as a fun way to add holograms to your social images and videos. Want to record a video of your kid interacting with Spiderman, or your significant other flirting with astronaut Buzz Aldrin? Then Holo is the app for you.

Using AR on your smartphone may just be the beginning, because Apple is rumoured to be working on a pair of AR glasses. That will ring alarm bells for those of you who remember the dorky pioneers of Google Glass. The main complaint about Google Glass, an optical head-mounted display first released in 2013, was that it seemed to isolate users from their surroundings. People who stare into their smartphone screens in public are bad enough, but Google Glass wearers came to be nicknamed “Glassholes” for their digital absorption.

It’s a fair bet that if Apple does release a pair of AR glasses sometime in the next few years, it’ll be much less geekier than Google’s version. Regardless, the upcoming release of iPhone 8 will lay the groundwork for an AR app explosion.