Apple ARKit is a Very Big Deal

Apple made its much-anticipated official entry into the Augmented Reality business yesterday, unveiling ARKit at its Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose. During the Keynote, Apple SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, proclaimed that by leveraging the hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads already in user hands, Apple will have the largest AR platform in the world, practically overnight.

As I pointed out last week in reference to AR vs VR user adoption projections:

Should [Apple] make an AR-focused play, they’d immediately be leveraging an estimated 800 million active iPhone users worldwide. That could dramatically change these numbers in a hurry.

Just like that, AR is poised to become a very, very big deal.

Set to ship as part of iOS 11 later this year (but available now as a Developer Beta), ARKit leverages cameras, sensors, and other existing hardware in iPhones and iPads. According to Apple, any device running iOS 11 with an A9 or newer processor will be able to run ARKit.

On the iPhone side, that means a 6S or later, giving AR devs a healthy built-in user base to start building for. It’s worth noting that Google’s equivalent technology, Tango, is only available on two phones, neither of which has sold very many units.

ARKit is built around six core features:

  • Fast, stable motion tracking without external markers
  • Plane estimation and basic boundaries
  • Ambient lighting estimation
  • Scale estimation
  • Support for Unity, Unreal, and SceneKit
  • Xcode app templates

Apple showed off ARKit’s prowess in a series of impressive live demos featuring the splashiest possible partner brands: Lego Batman, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s company, Wingnut AR. The on-stage demos wowed the live audience, and certainly looked good to me as I watched the Keynote livestream.

Tech journalists sounded equally impressed by demos they went hands-on with after the Keynote. These demos ran on newly-launched iPad Pros; common wisdom points to the forthcoming iPhone 8 offering even beefier hardware tweaked for AR performance.

All of this adds up to big news for early adopters and developers of Augmented Reality content. But the fact that Apple launched their first “AR” branded product – ARKit is “only” dev tools, but it’s still very much a product – in such a splashy way, and with huge household name partners, is perhaps even bigger news.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been hinting for months that his company is bullish on AR, and in a big way. Yesterday’s Keynote made clear at least some of what Cook’s been hinting at. It also served to put the rest of the burgeoning AR industry on notice, as Ben Thompson wrote:

Peppered throughout Apple’s presentation were seemingly small features like new compression algorithms that depend on Apple controlling everything from Messages to the camera to the processor that makes it all work. The most impressive example was ARKit: in one fell swoop Apple leaped ahead of the rest of the industry in the race to realize the promise of augmented reality. The contrast to Facebook was striking: while the social network is seeking to leverage its control of content distribution to lure developers to build on Facebook’s “camera”,  Apple is not only offering the same opportunity (the results of which can, of course, be shared on Facebook or Instagram), but also delivering a superior set of APIs that, by virtue of being part of that vertical stack, are both more powerful and accessible than anything a 3rd-party application can deliver.

Those oft-rumored Apple AR glasses are most likely on the company’s product roadmap. With ARKit, Apple just earned major player status in the Reality Biz, whether or not those glasses ever ship. Come this fall, hundreds of millions of consumers will have bleeding-edge AR rigs in their pockets everyday, simply by applying a free software update to their iPhones.