APPLE BETS THE FUTURE OF AUGMENTED REALITY WILL BE ON YOUR PHONE

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THE AR REVOLUTION will come not with a bang but a tape measure. At least, that seems to be the lesson so far from ARKit, Apple’s new augmented-reality platform.

ARKit lets developers build AR apps, which integrate digital experiences into the physical world via iPhone or iPad, a la Pokémon Go. Those apps will be available to consumers when iOS 11 arrives in September. But developers have started tinkering—creating tools that let you see how furniture fits in a room or quickly calculate the area of your kitchen. Compared to the likes of Magic Leap or Google Glass, these apps are simple, almost trivial. But that smallness might be precisely what makes them so potentially huge.

Matthew Miesnieks, a VC who led a team researching AR within Samsung,1 calls ARKit “the biggest thing that’s happened to the AR industry since it began,” and he’s not alone in his enthusiasm. By getting AR in the hands of millions of iPhone users, Apple is poised to become the world’s most powerful and popular purveyor of augmented-reality apps. And by opening up its developers’ kit, it’s powering hundreds of experiments into what, precisely, this medium is good for.

Apple unveiled ARKit at its developers’ conference in June. Like most AR demos, Apple’s promised that AR could introduce its users to another layer of existence, turning an iPhone into “a lens into a virtual world.” One featured app let users watch a Goldilocks story play out on a kid’s bedspread. Another placed a Lego Batwing on a coffee table. During the keynote, a representative from Peter Jackson’s production company looked through an iPad to display a space war taking place on an otherwise empty tabletop.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have airship battles like this in your own living room?” he asked.

This kind of language was familiar to anyone who had been paying attention to other AR innovators. Magic Leap’s Rony Abovitz foresees a world in which “whales jump out of gymnasium floors” and “solar systems can be held in the palm of your hand.” Microsoft’s Alex Kipman talked about AR in similarly grandiose terms at the 2016 TED conference, when he showed off his company’s HoloLens by cavorting through digital caves and wandering the virtual surface of Mars. “Devices like this will bring 3-D holographic content right into our world,” he said, “enhancing the way we experience life beyond our ordinary range of perceptions.”

Compared to that techno-mysticism, much of the stuff built with ARKit seems downright banal. One app lets you see how a new throw pillow would look on your couch. A menu appshows the proffered food as it might appear on your table. Sure, some developers are filling rooms with virtual water or building portals into alternate dimensions, but it’s the close-to-the-ground stuff that’s generating the most enthusiastic response. One video, which garnered 12,000 likes on the popular @MadeWithARKit Twitter feed, merely shows a digital tape measure unspooling.

That modesty of vision isn’t a handicap. It’s precisely why ARKit apps are more likely to catch on where other, more ambitious approaches have failed. It’s easy to forget, amid all the overheated rhetoric and consciousness-expanding possibilities, but most people don’t want technology to usher them into an entirely new plane of existence. They just want it to solve problems and make their lives easier.

Call it the Inductive Theory of Platform Development—successful consumer technologies don’t start with grand ideas that trickle down into products. They begin as small solutions that expand to become grand ideas. Facebook didn’t set out to become the most powerful force in digital media; it started as a way for college kids to connect with one another. The iPhone started life as a simple MP3 player, only later evolving to include iTunes, voice calls, internet access, and then the App Store.

Something similar may be at work here. Before ARKit, the most successful AR experiments were Snapchat’s Spectacles—which simply gave users a new lens through which to experience its app—and Pokémon Go. “They made it feel like people were doing normal things in a slightly more fun and different way,” says Josh Elman of Greylock Partners. “It was like a toy instead of a whole new world.” (Compare that to Google Glass, an ambitious always-on AR device that never found a killer app—unless you define that as “an app that can get you killed.”)

It wouldn’t be the first time that the iPhone redefined a medium by creating a more modest alternative. The videogame industry was dominated by expensive, complicated console games until the iPhone introduced the concept of low-stakes “casual” games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds.

Some observers think ARKit is just a gateway drug, a first step that leads inevitably to the Magic Leapening. Andreessen Horowitz’s Chris Dixon tweeted that ARKit is “a great stepping stone” toward “full VR/AR experiences.” Sam Dauntesq, who runs the @MadeWithARKit Twitter feed, expects that AR will inevitably make the leap from phone screens to glasses, a permanent digital overlay to the world. Apple may agree with him. The company has long been thought to be building ARKit-enabled glasses, a rumor that Miesnieks says is “100 percent” true. “I’ve spoken to people who have held and used the prototypes of them,” he says. Apple declined to comment.

So maybe in the end AR will look something like what its most ambitious advocates predict: stuck to our faces, always on, providing a lens into a world we can scarcely imagine. But if we ever get there, it won’t begin with grand visions and jaw-dropping demos. Progress will happen bit by bit, piece by piece, one problem at a time. You’ll be able to measure it in inches.

1 UPDATE: 1:51 PM 8/17/17 This story was updated to correctly describe Matthew Miesnieks’ role at Samsung.