There’s a lot of excitement these days around a couple of concepts that are different, but similar – virtual reality and augmented reality. The former involves entering a virtual environment and interacting with wholly digital objects. The latter brings digital objects into the real world, such as the popular game Pokemon Go.
AR Believers include Apple CEO Tim Cook says the field could be as big as the smartphone. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, says he sees a lot of potential in AR. And Google CEO Sundar Pichai sits on the board of augmented reality startup Magic Leap. Google is also pushing augmented reality through Project Tango, which people can try for themselves if they buy a compatible phone, such as the Asus ZenFone AR that is launching in India this week.
Though Tim Cook has been playing up its potential for a while, Apple had been pretty silent on what it was actually working on in the field of AR. But all that changed last month at WWDC 2017, when the company announced ARKit, a tool for developers to create augmented reality apps for iOS 11.
Ever since the announcement, interest in AR has skyrocketed – you have dedicated Twitter accounts showcasing the latest and greatest ideas brought to life using ARKit. No one really knows what people will eventually use AR for, and some people think that’s great because we’re going to see an explosion of creativity and new ideas coming forth.
Videos show a seamless digital world superimposed over reality, and leave out the awkwardly held phone whose battery is draining away as you uncomfortably try and contort yourself to see information that could have accessed more quickly and easily if it was displayed as a card on your screen.
For example, Made With ARKit Twitter handle has been curating the “coolest” ARKit stuff around, like this slow to load restaurant menu that can show only one item at a time, and is in no way better or easier to use than a high quality picture in a menu, next to which you could put text with detailed explanations that would be easy to read.
It’s almost as if there’s been a conscious decision to ignore the fact that there’s a phone mediating the whole experience. When someone makes a game of “augmented” tic-tac-toe that can be played against any real world surface… you’re still playing on your phones. You could take a high resolution picture of the stars and play in space if that’s what you want.
Some apps, such as the AR tape measure are going to be pretty useful and accurate, though the idea isn’t exactly new. Although some might still prefer to use real tools, apps like these are bound to be useful and it means that there’s one less thing to carry as well.
Games like Pokemon Go will get an upgrade, and there are a number of demos around, of which a few are genuinely eye-popping, but only as long as you don’t think that the window to the entire experience is your smartphone’s tiny screen.
Playing Minecraft in the real world thanks to AR sounds like something you’d do more to share pictures of it on social media than something that actually makes the game better – like those funny Pokemon Go pictures everyone used to share, showing things like a Magikarp in a bowl of soup.
The AR gold rush is not going to be like the early days of the App Store. When the App Store was getting started, it was the Wild West, sure, in that no one really knew what worked, and the rules were being built in front of us. And although there were a lot of people out to make a quick buck even then, it wasn’t the hugely organised and motivated gold rush that exists today. AR is being positioned as the next big thing, and the noise that’s going to follow has a very strong chance of drowning out everything else. If you think that’s pessimistic, take a look at the Apple Watch.
Everyone was sure that it was going to be the next big thing, and nobody wanted to risk missing out. Which meant that at a time when everything was half-baked and still at the stage where early adopters usually help improve a platform through their feedback, a deluge of hype took over instead. You could argue that the issue is that the Watch as a platform isn’t there yet, but with so much sudden competition for our attention (and funding), we’d say that it didn’t really get a chance at all.
Every time someone does make an app that’s actually good and useful, it’ll be drowned in a sea of clones, making it that much harder for the developers to actually make money off their hard work, and making it less likely that good ideas will continue to be developed.
No one really knows how to make full use of technologies such as VR and AR right now, and there’s no question that the technology holds an immense amount of potential. Now that it’s making its way to the mainstream though, we’ve got to hope that the initial gold rush doesn’t kill off all the good ideas as well, destroying the “next big thing” before it gets a chance to really take root.