Editor’s Note: This is our first “Deep Dive,” a column that will combine available press coverage with the insight of industry insiders to offer an in-depth look at whatever tech stories have caught the public’s imagination. This week, we’re talking Apple’s ARKit, the hit of the Worldwide Developer Conference keynote. See below for an in-depth look at Apple’s announcement, and be sure and check out this week’s In Reality Podcast, which also covers Apple’s WWDC announcements.

Deep Dive: Apple, ARKit, and the future of Augmented Reality

Who? Apple
What? The ARKit announcement
Where? Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, San Jose, Ca.
When? Mon., June 5
Why is it important? Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote has been hit or miss in recent years, as the product announcements the public craves (new iPhones tops among them) have been pushed to the fall. But this year’s event felt fresh. Yes, there were more new products than usual for a WWDC keynote (on display: new iMacs, MacBook Pros, and an Alexa-like speaker called HomePod), but it was a subtle renewal of focus from Apple that made the event stand out. This focus includes things like AI and machine learning, which Google, Facebook and other tech titans have been actively pursuing — and it included a focus on Augmented and Virtual Reality.

Apple’s VR announcements (the new iMacs are capable of VR content creation, Final Cut Pro has been updated to handle 360-degree video editing), though welcome were also somewhat underwhelming. They also paled in comparison to the unveiling of ARKit, a new set of Augmented Reality tools that leverage the unique hardware/software combination present in iOS devices. The fruit of a 2015 purchase of Metaio, ARKit is a big deal for Apple and the industry at large.

Noted Apple analyst Gene Munster called ARKit the “most revolutionary thing at WWDC,” and said the SDK was “”a light year ahead of everything else that’s out there.” Business Insider declared “Apple is now the leader in the technology that could replace the smartphone,” though they went on to say, “but it doesn’t have a vision yet.” CNBC called the SDK “pretty amazing” and quoted 3D Cloud CEO Beck Besecker saying ARKit is a “game changer” for Augmented Reality. The Verge says Apple’s AR platform is “a stepping stone, but a pretty cool one.” TechCrunch specifically mentioned the “pretty amazing demo,” which highlighted ARKit’s markerless spatial awareness.

Looking at that rundown, it’s safe to say there’s some difference of opinion on what the release of ARKit will mean for Apple and Augmented Reality as a whole. But what about an under-the-hood lock at the SDK?

“They’re using plane tracking with anchor points (‘anchors’ meaning they create markers out of the video), so a very good step in the right direction and a good first step for Apple,” explains Ken Moser, PhD, 3D Cloud software designer and resident expert on Augmented Reality. Ken has been playing with Apple’s SDK for a few days now, and he notes the tracking is very good, largely thanks to the way Apple’s solution takes advantage of hardware present in iOS devices. This leveraging of the hardware also explains why Apple has made ARKit compatible only with iOS devices running an A9 chip and later.

“Starting with the A9 processor, Apple’s chipsets have included a special embedded motion coprocessors that offload IMU processing from the CPU, so this hardware is most likely the essential ingredient and why the API is limited to these processor types,” Ken explains.

What’s next for Apple and AR Kit?

It should be noted here that we only know half the story about ARKit. This is because the next iPhone (call it “iPhone 8” for now) will be the flagship device for running apps built with ARKit, and no one outside of Apple really knows what kind of next-gen sensors and upgrades the iPhone 8 will contain. The rumor mill says Apple is including special depth-sensing cameras and other AR-assisting tech, but we’ll have to wait for the big reveal to know for sure.

Ultimately, this is all so important because it speaks to the future of one of America’s greatest and most successful companies. The New York Times understand this, and cut to the chase with it’s piece, “Apple Needs to Reinvent Itself. It Just Might Be Doing So.”

“For some time now, Apple has faced questions about its growth and what rabbits it can pull out of its hat next, especially as rivals including Google, Facebook and Amazon appear to have gotten the jump on it with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality,” writes Times report Farhad Manjoo. “The Apple iPhone remains the most profitable computing device in the world, and Apple’s immediate future looks sunny, but its long-term outlook has begun to look partly cloudy. In a world that seems to care less and less about beautiful hardware and more about services that help you from afar, over the air, without your ever having to touch a machine, Apple risks becoming an anachronism.”

ARKit is a big part of Apple’s play to stave off that mortality — at least in the short term. And in these complex and uncertain times, short term is probably good enough.

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