Augmented Reality and #ARKit: the coming revolution

The world of mobile and technology is abuzz with news about Apple’s ARKit. It is anticipated that ARKit is set to revolutionise the way people engage with their smartphones and possibly, also with their wearable devices in the future. Further, ARKit also presents vistas of opportunities for enterprises to engage with their customers through value-added and delightful AR based experiences.

We know that AR uses simulations from the real-world and augments or alters it by overlaying virtual elements (visual and audio) on it.

The technology behind Augmented Reality (AR)

AR uses a technology known as Visual Intertial Odometry (VIO) to track the world around it. VIO along with the data from device and sensors helps in tracking the real-world around it and map it to a 3D coordinate system. There are also other technologies like features point tracking, scene understanding, light estimation, etc. which are used to augment the real-world view for the user.

AR apps per se are not new, and the world has seen AR being used across industries earlier as well. So, what is new with ARKit?

There are AR apps which need some kind of a marker to track the visuals around them – these apps are known as marker-based AR apps. A visual marker can be anything such as an image or a pattern that the AR software can identify. When a user points the device camera at a predefined marker, the SDKs recognise it and overlay the virtual elements (3D model or an audio or video file) on top of the marker, thus, augmenting the real-world experience for the user. These markers can be used as triggers to activate the AR experience in the app.

Unlike marker-based apps, ARKit does not require any kind of visual markers. One can simply point a camera in a well-lit, well-textured scene and start tracking or placing 3D objects on top of it. ARKit automatically tracks the world around it and applies the transforms to the 3D digital assets rendered in the real world.

As the excitement around ARKit rises, let’s take a look at some of the potential use-cases for brands and industries across all verticals to use ARKit to build engaging AR based experiences for their customers.

Building user engagement across categories through AR based videos

Videos are all about recording real-world events and AR is all about augmenting the real world. So it’s a match made in heaven. AR can be used to add special effects to the real world environment and then the augmented version can be recorded through the device camera.

Brands can look at creating AR based videos to engage with their customers, where an actual scene could be scripted and enacted and further enhanced by deploying AR effects at various points.

Here’s an unpolished demonstration of the Expecto Patronum charm from Harry Potter. Of course, the effect is not the same as the original one, but it gives an idea. Similar kind of effects can be created using 3D models and animated scenes merged into the real world.

Retail

Home furnishing retailer IKEA has partnered with Apple to create an AR app, which can help customers superimpose the 3D models of IKEA’s products in their home setting and see if the furniture goes well with their interiors. Further, the app can also help in simplifying IKEA’s furniture assembly with AR-based assembly instructions.

Similar shopping experiences for real world objects such as paintings, photo frames, and show pieces can also be created. Brands can create 3D digital assets of their product catalogue and provide an AR app to let the users place the items in real world settings.

Another such example is Houzz, a home decor company which has rolled out an update of its iOS app, which uses AR to place a furniture or accessory item in a room setting. This helps customers is getting a preview of how it will look in a real world room.

Fashion brands can offer AR apps to help their customers virtually try an apparel, and thus enabling them in making the right choice. Further, brand stores can also display apparel or accessories that are AR supported, and a corresponding app can allow the users to try them out.

Brick and mortar stores can also use this technology to drive foot falls into their stores by displaying such AR enabled products on their front display.

Real Estate, Tourism and Indoor navigation

Real estate as an industry has been rather latent in adopting technological advancements. Other than the usual portals for renting, buying and selling properties we have not seen a true technological breakthrough as such in this area. But AR/VR can change that with some really great applications.

AR could be used to create portals for properties that users can view from the comfort of their home. A simple demonstration of this capability is shown in the video below.

3D models of famous places, palaces, galleries could be created, and people can navigate through these places using AR. Museums can use AR apps to direct people to various exhibits and provide them with additional information about these exhibits. This kind of an indoor navigation can also be used in exploring buildings like schools, hospitals, malls and office spaces.

A huge advantage that ARKit has is that it provides the user with an experience of moving through the properties as if they are walking around the actual place. No other experience be it videos or 360-degree videos can match this experience.

Gaming

In the recent years, we have seen that gaming industry has been at the forefront when it comes to adopting newer technologies, be it Metal or SceneKit. It’s no different for AR. The industry has adopted the concept of AR much before the introduction of ARKit.

Pokémon Go is a classic example of how augmented reality features can be used to drive the success of the games. Although it can be debated that this game is not really an AR game, the idea behind the game – that is to superimpose digital characters on top of the camera view and interact with them is what AR is all about. While these digital characters were not tracked in the real world, it did open up a lot of possibilities of AR in the world of gaming.

Unity and Unreal engines have already provided an ARKit plug-in that can be used to develop AR features in the games built using this technology. So it is just a matter of time before the app store will be flooded with AR-based games. Apple might even highlight the games that use AR similar to how they identify apps that have Apple Watch support. This could help people in quickly finding AR based games in the App Store.

Education & Training

AR is going to have a huge impact on the education and training industry. Even simple AR apps like the ones mentioned above have the potential to drive high engagement amongst kids, as AR has the inherent quality to get them excited through augmenting and changing visuals around their real mundane world.

AR based learning and training apps have an enormous potential to further amplify the impact on the productivity and usefulness of the applications.

There are already a few marker-based AR apps that allow the user to scan a predefined image and see a 3D representation of that image appearing on the screen. Such apps can be expanded even further with the use of AR technology to create far greater experiences.

In the area of training, immersive experiences can be created that can give a sense of hands-on experience when working with equipment’s without actually having them. The 3D-sensing nature of the AR technology can create a more authentic and engaging experience in ways that have never been possible before. For instance, GE has used AR technology in a lot of ways and has seen positive results through it.

Location based apps

There were already a lot of location based apps in the market before the AR technology came into the mainstream. AR technology further amplified their usage by allowing users to point their camera anywhere and location markers will show various interesting places on the camera screen. Although not all location-based apps fall directly under the AR category, AR technology can be used to elevate the location-based app experiences to a new level. When these two technologies are combined, exciting experiences can be provided to the users.

Location based apps interact with the real world in a much closer way than any other app, so augmenting such apps with AR can create wonderful experiences in this area.

Apple could potentially update their camera app to include location-based AR capabilities. For instance, users could use the default camera app to find out places of interest. Through AR, various markers from the current position can be shown that can help the user get directions to a particular place of interest. Another feature can be to show some information about the area where the user is currently situated.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the use cases of the AR technology (there are a lot more of course) and almost every industry can benefit from AR if used right.

One important thing to understand is that AR technology is not tied to a specific hardware. While most of the technologies are tightly coupled with hardware, AR technology can run on a wide range of devices. Typically AR can be run on any piece of hardware that can be used to see the real world. This can range from something as small as contact lenses to something as large as glass walls covering things like glasses, mobile, tablets, car windshields, etc. and everything in between.

It is interesting to see that Apple has taken a software-first approach into this new technology through ARKit while Google and Microsoft have taken the leap into AR through their hardware-first approach via the now defunct Google Glass and HoloLens. Google though is now getting into the software approach with the introduction of ARCore.

Software-first approach makes perfect sense for Apple because they already have millions of their devices and just need to roll an OS update to get this technology into most of them. Google and Microsoft on the other hand, don’t have this advantage. Google’s Glass didn’t take off as expected and Microsoft’s HoloLens is still not ready for primetime use.

However, is it only a matter of time before Apple comes out with their version of the hardware? It will be interesting to see what kind of device they would come up with and in which form. Will it be smaller than Google Glass or bigger than HoloLens or something in between? Could it create a new kind of device altogether? Only time will tell.

But one thing is for sure when they do, AR would have been woven into our daily routines, and Apple would have played a major role in that.

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