With ARKit, Apple Could Redefine Augmented Reality

I stared into a holographic image of Jabba the Hutt with only a battle chess board in between the two of us. One of my battle chess pieces had just pounded one of his into oblivion, and Jabba was not pleased, filling the air with what I can only hope was the Hutt equivalent of smack talk.

In matters of Battle Chess, we're advised to let the wookiee win, but no one said anything about how to handle the fragile emotions of Hutts.

This isn't a snippet from my dream journal. My battle chess game happened in the real world — or at least the virtual one, with the help of Apple's ARKit tool. Part of iOS 11, ARKit lets developers more easily create augmented reality experiences that will be coming soon to an iPhone or iPad near you. And it also may have just tipped Apple's hands about its plans for AR in the upcoming iPhone 8.

There was no hint of the iPhone 8 at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference today (June 5). Instead, Apple demoed ARKit on one of the iPad Pros the company unveiled during its WWDC keynote. And the augmented reality party won't be limited to new hardware, either: Apple tells me that any mobile device with an A9 processor running iOS 11 will be able to take advantage of ARKit. On the iPhone front, that means an iPhone 6s or later will be able to dive into AR.

This is a very important point, as you won't need a fancy piece of hardware like a Google Tango phone to get a compelling AR experience. It will work with millions of existing iPhones.

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ARKit essentially takes advantage of the processing power inside your phone, the iPhone's camera and all those motion sensors to create virtual objects that are superimposed upon your screen. And these are pretty sophisticated objects, too. In a demo area, an Apple rep used ARKit to project a virtual cup of coffee onto a flat table. When we moved the iPad, our perspective on the cup would change, with the cup getting larger as the iPad got closer and smaller as we moved the tablet farther away.

The virtual objects interact, too. Adding a virtual lamp caused the coffee cup to cast a shadow that shifted whenever we moved it around the table.

The WWDC keynote featured far more sophisticated demos of what ARKit could do, with a virtual Lego Batmobile (complete with pint-sized Lego Batman) appearing on an iPad screen. Another demo from Wingnut AR had a sophisticated battle with villagers fending off space pirates unfold on a tabletop.

ARKit is able to do all this by providing stable motion tracking, estimating ambient light and the scale of objects and integrating with existing developer tools including Unreal Engine, Unity and others. Apple's Craig Federighi also noted that "hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads" already in people's hands will be able to enjoy ARKit-created content.

But it's the device that's only rumored at this point that figures to be the biggest beneficiary of ARKit. The iPhone 8 is expected to arrive this fall, and a popular rumor suggests that one of the new phone's marquee features will be greater support for augmented reality. In particular, it's expected that the camera on the iPhone 8 could support image recognition features and on-the-fly image manipulation.

Nothing about ARKit confirms that AR features will be front and center on the next iPhone. But the fact that Apple's highlight a tool for creating AR apps and experiences certainly signals a growing interest in building AR into its future products.

For several boring months, Pokemon Go has dominated our list of top AR apps, which is part of the problem. There needs to be a new wave, and Apple's ARKit should make that happen.

Image Credits: Mark Spoonauer

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.