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Apple might be right to undersell augmented reality

One of Apple’s most interesting new mobile updates is an augmented reality toolkit called ARKit, which will show up on iPhones and iPads next week with iOS 11. Even before the official release, developers have used ARKit to realize some pretty clever ideas. But yesterday, ARKit felt like a minor sideshow to the big news of the day. Where Apple was effusive about augmented reality earlier this year at WWDC — and competitors Google and Facebook have steadily stressed it as a sea change in human-computer interaction — yesterday’s event made it feel like an extra perk. Writer and VR / AR evangelist Robert Scoble called it “totally undersold,” with “no effort at explaining why Apple’s new OS is bringing a new world to us.”

But right now, that might be a smart idea.

Showcasing “augmented reality” on a smartphone comes with a lot of baggage. The term seems simultaneously futuristic and obsolete: it could refer to the awkward AR gimmicks of early smartphones, high-tech glasses that people might not use for years, or a conflation of both. ARKit has a lot of potential uses, but many of them are still pretty silly, which sits uneasily alongside lofty rhetoric about the future of computing. And, above all, people can’t use ARKit until iOS 11 is released next week, so they’d have to wait to check out anything Apple demonstrated at the keynote.

For an example of how overselling an idea too early can backfire, look at Google’s phone-based Daydream VR platform. Daydream is a great idea with good technical execution, but since so few phones supported the system at first, practically nobody could try it during the first wave of publicity. Google created a separate Play Store to make Daydream feel like an independent platform, but this also highlighted the small launch catalog. People were primed to pass judgment on Daydream as though it were a full-fledged computing…

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