On Tuesday, Google announced ARCore, a new augmented reality (AR) development platform.

ARCore is based on Google's Tango technology, which the search giant has been working on since 2014. Tango had a huge limitation, however, that was always realistically going to hinder its adoption: the Tango technology needed special hardware to work.

Unlike Tango, ARCore doesn't require special hardware support, so apps developed using ARCore will work with all Android devices running Android version 7.0 Nougat and above. Google says it aims to have 100m Android devices that support ARCore by the time its preview of the platform ends.

So what does ARCore offer?

According to Google, ARCore's capabilities focus on three areas: 

  • Motion tracking. A compelling AR experience demands that virtual objects remain placed where they're expected to be. ARCore uses a phone's camera and sensor data to track the position and orientation of the phone as it moves.
  • Environmental understanding. As Google explained, "It's common for AR objects to be placed on a floor or a table. ARCore can detect horizontal surfaces using the same feature points it uses for motion tracking."
  • Light estimation. To provide for a more realistic AR experience, ARCore is capable of tracking ambient light and allowing developers to shade their virtual objects so that they look more realistic.

Combined, ARCore makes it possible for developers to create innovative AR experiences that are smooth, realistic and that function with a high level of performance.

A new battlefront in the war against Apple for mobile supremacy

ARCore is Google's answer to Apple's ARKit, which was unveiled in June at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). Prominent tech investor Gene Munster called it the most "revolutionary" announcement at the conference and it's not hard to understand why.

Like Google's ARCore, ARKit enables developers to build advanced augmented reality applications that place virtual content "on top of real-world scenes for interactive gaming, immersive shopping experiences, industrial design and more."

When announced, Apple boasted that ARKit offers developers the "latest computer vision technologies" and that once iOS 11 is rolled out it will have the "the biggest AR platform in the world" consisting of hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad devices.

Not surprisingly, developers were eager to start building AR experiences based on ARKit and as TechCrunch's Matthew Panzarino detailed, major brands are among those embracing the platform. For example, IKEA, which is no stranger to AR, in seven weeks used ARKit to build a new AR feature for its iOS catalog app. This feature will allow shoppers to visualize what items would look like in their homes.

Publisher Touch Press took advantage of ARKit to build an AR experience around the popular children's book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Because it was designed for young children, Touch Press had to be thoughtful about how it allows users to control the interactivity. Panzarino explained:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar's control methodology was based on focus. The act of pointing at an object and leaving your gaze on it caused the story to progress and actions to be taken (knocking fruit out of a tree for the caterpillar to munch on or encouraging it to go to sleep on a stump). Most of the other apps relied on something as simple as a single tap for most actions. I think this control-free or control-light paradigm will be widespread. It will require some rethinking for many apps being translated.

Interestingly, while Google and Apple are obviously fighting for AR supremacy, Google clearly recognizes that the iOS ecosystem is important. In its AR announcement, the company stated "we think the Web will be a critical component of the future of AR." To that end, it plans to release prototype web browsers for developers that will enable them to create "AR-enhanced websites and run them on both Android/ARCore and iOS/ARKit."

AR's breakout

Companies have been experimenting with AR for years and thanks to the breakout success of Pokemon Go, brands like Disney are increasingly feeling comfortable enough to develop large campaigns around AR.

With Google and Apple, the makers of the two most popular mobile operating systems, now offering AR platforms on which companies can build robust, high-performing AR apps for the masses, it seems safe to declare that it's no longer a matter of if AR will achieve mainstream ubiquity but when.

In other words, thanks to ARCore and ARKit, it's likely that AR will be incorporated into apps across a wide variety of categories, not just games, within the next year. As such, brands would be wise to get ahead of the curve now and start taking AR seriously if they're not doing so already.

Patricio Robles

Published 31 August, 2017 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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