SAN JOSE, California—Judging by crowd reactions in the cavernous auditorium where Apple addressed its developer community on Monday, the most exciting thing Apple revealed wasn't a new iPad or a fully loaded iMac, but a wonky set of developer tools called ARKit; the AR stands for augmented reality.
Augmented reality is an emerging and hot technology that uses advances in camera and graphics technology to integrate the digital world with the real world. Think of Pokémon Go—hold up your phone, a Pokémon appears in the real world, and you can digitally catch it.
Big tech companies like Apple are investing in AR because it's widely seen in the industry as the next big platform after the smartphone, and it could eventually end up in smart glasses that replace all the screens in your life. And with ARKit, Apple just took a big lead in the young field. Apple's new ARKit software makes it significantly easier for software makers to make these kinds of apps. Instead of doing all the hard computational work of say, figuring out where the tabletop is, developers can instead use Apple's software to do that and spend their time building a useful application around it.
But Apple has no idea what those applications could look like. Or if Apple has a vision for what a fully augmented reality would be like, it didn't show it on Monday. Instead, it passed the buck to its developers.
There are a lot of ideas about the short- and mid-term uses for augmented-reality technology. (Some companies love to debate jargon about whether sufficiently advanced AR would become "mixed reality" or another term. I'm using "augmented reality" as a catchall term here.) Some companies have already released a pair of smart glasses aimed giving big companies or schools a tool for instruction, like Microsoft with its HoloLens. Other companies like Snap and Facebook are using AR to add whimsy — puppy-face filters—to selfies and other photography. And some companies like Magic Leap see AR as a gaming platform.
It's unclear how Apple wants its developers to use its augmented-reality tools. Are they tools for gaming? One of Apple's examples was an improved version of Pokémon Go in which the Pokémon wouldn't float anymore. Or are they professional tools, like Ikea's app that Apple highlighted that lets you see how furniture would fit in your room?
The announcement on Monday seemed to be geared toward Apple being able to claim an early lead in the nascent technology—CEO Tim Cook even said it would be the largest AR platform in the world. Apple released two tech demos to show off what ARKit can do.
One, developed by Apple, allows a user to place objects, like a coffee cup or a lamp, on a table. It was a pure tech demo. There's no deeper point to putting the coffee cup on the table, and although it's technically impressive it was showing off that Apple's technology can do a thing, but not a thing people want to do. The other tech demo was a playable version of a "Star Wars" board game built in tandem with Industrial Light and Magic. It looked like fun, but it was still a virtual board game — a toy — and not exactly a concept that would take the world by storm.
Apple inspires such hope in the AR world not because of its prowess in computer vision, inside-out tracking, or any of the important component technologies baked into ARKit — these people see Apple as a boost for their tech because it has earned a reputation for smart design.
One fear about a future augmented reality is that it would look like this:
Apple's executives would never let that happen. Apple is too invested in the user experience to let AR become a distraction or a negative. So what people want to see from Apple is answers to questions such as: What are the top uses for AR? Is AR best for providing small bits of information or big, splashy graphics? Why would most people have AR experiences every day, as Cook has predicted?
Apple did not shed a lot of light on that on Monday. Instead, it gave its legions of developers the tools to make what ultimately will be AR experiments, hoping that one developer will find the Uber or Snapchat of augmented reality — and it will run on the iPhone.
I suspect people at Apple have a grand, unified theory of augmented reality — or at least a more detailed vision than the company has revealed. Maybe they're just waiting for the iPhone 8 launch this fall to lay it out.