Report: Apple Takes Big Step Toward AR-Ready iPhone 8

Apple has made no bones about its interest in augmented reality. And lately, evidence is mounting that the company is rapidly moving to adding AR to its mobile products, possibly as soon as next year.

The latest piece of the puzzle emerged tonight (Nov. 16) when Business Insider reported on an effort underway at Apple to integrate AR technology into the iPhone's camera app. The report, which cites "a person familiar with matter," says Apple's AR push is tapping resources from an array of startups bought by the company with an eye toward getting AR into its product lineup as quickly as possible.

That looks like it's going to be next year. Business Insider's sources say Apple will add AR capabilities to the iPhone's camera app, likely in 2017's iOS 11 update. Once that AR support is in place, you'll be able to point your iPhone's camera at a real-world object, and the software will be able to recognize it. Business Insider says the AR feature could also tap into the facial recognition features added in iOS 10, allowing the Camera app to recognize and manipulate people's faces.

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Given the rumored timing of Apple's planned updates to its Camera app -- the company typically releases major iOS updates at the same time as it rolls out new iPhones -- it looks like AR could wind up being one of the major additions to next year's iPhone 8. The company is reportedly planning to overhaul the phone's design -- think OLED displays that stretch from one edge of the phone to the other -- so adding AR features would allow Apple to tout substantial software changes for the iPhone as well.

In some sense, Apple would be playing catch-up with an AR-enabled phone. Google and Lenovo teamed up to release the Phab2 Pro, a phone that uses motion tracking and depth perception features to superimpose virtual objects on top of the real world as seen through that phone's camera. The Phab2 Pro has just started shipping after it was unveiled earlier this year.

This is hardly the first time someone has suggested that AR will be a major focus for the iPhone 8. Last month, tech blogger Robert Scoble predicted that the next iPhone would feature a virtually see-through design, making it well-suited for AR uses. Scoble says he based his forecast on talking to multiple industry sources, including those making the components for the next iPhone.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that Apple is working on a pair of AR glasses similar to Google Glasses. But that AR product likely won't appear until 2018 at the earliest, Bloomberg says.

Apple normally plays its cards close to the vest when it comes to future product plans, and it has yet to confirm any of the many rumors already swirling about the iPhone 8. But it has been quite up front about its interest in augmented reality. In July, CEO Tim Cook confirmed to Wall Street analysts that Apple was investing in AR. More recently, Cook spoke enthusiastically about AR's potential during a TV interview, especially when compared to virtual reality.

"There's virtual reality and there's augmented reality," Cook said on Good Morning America back in September. "Both of these are incredibly interesting. But my own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far."

Should reports of Apple adding AR features to the iOS Camera app pan out, augmented reality could wind up meeting that potential sooner rather than later.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.