Apple's World Wide Developer conference kicked off today, and among the refinements that we're seeing for iOS is increased support for augmented reality. A brand new ARKit is dropping and along with it some impressive apps and features could make mixed reality more than just a novelty.
We're still a long way from seeing anything truly mind blowing in AR, but it's important to keep in mind just how much this subject matters to Apple. CEO Tim Cook has said again and again that he thinks AR is one of the most important developments for Apple's long-term future. Last year, he told Vogue, "I don't think there is any sector or industry that will be untouched by AR."
We're still just seeing incremental developments right now, but it's all part of building the software background that will fuel the inevitable AR headset that Apple may or may not release in 2019.
Here's what the company showed off today:
Some examples of shareable AR objects in real-world spaces. Screenshot: Apple
USDZ File Format
Apple says it worked with Pixar to create a brand new file format for AR. It's called USDZ and it can be used to share and interact with AR objects across the iOS ecosphere. For instance, you could send your partner a 3D coffee maker object and they could try out how it looks on the kitchen counter.
Above all, the format is designed to streamline AR sharing into a compact format that can be used for whatever million-dollar idea creators can come up with.
One creative partner that Apple has brought on to help build out USDZ's functionality is Adobe. Adobe is putting native USDZ support into Creative Cloud suite of apps. Designers will be able to natively edit AR objects in the software they're familiar with - perhaps as easily as if they were throwing a lens flare on a JPEG.
With a new iOS app, any element can be pulled from Creative Cloud and viewed in augmented reality. More details on this new app are supposed to come later today.
Measure app taking 3D measurements along X,Y and Z axis. Screenshot: Apple
The sound of a thousand ARKit developers crying out could be heard across the land as Apple introduced its own tape measuring app. The tape measure was a common app we saw developers testing out before the first version of ARKit formally launched. It's basically the fart app of AR, and there are a bunch of them in the app store already.
But now Apple's releasing its official "Measure" app, and no one will ever need to turn to a third-party digital ruler again - unless it sucks.
One way that Apple wanted to show off USDZ integration across the iOS platform was in how it might integrate with news articles. A magazine article about Japanese gardening was shown on the big screen, and when a user scrolled down they could see a 3D rendering of a Koi fish. Tapping on a control maximised the image, it was animated, and a user could pan or zoom around it.
You've probably seen some form of interactive video on the occasional New York Times article, but Apple is selling this as a much simpler way of bringing original AR assets into stories. It's also likely showing off some fancy magazine features as it pushes Texture, the Netflix-for-magazines service it acquired in March. Expect to see that app showing off AR features hard.
Unless you're a developer, most of what's going on under the hood of the new ARKit won't matter to you. "Better everything" is essentially what it boils down to. But the biggest takeaway should be that it's bringing in persistent, shared experiences or, you know, multiplayer for AR. Two or more people will be able to log in to an app and see the same AR objects in the same shared space.
One example app was shown off that will be available to developers today. It showed two players facing each other and battling to knock over a bunch of fake wooden blocks on a real table. Each player used their iPad as a slingshot to knock over the wooden shapes, and a third observer could even watch what the other players were doing from a totally different perspective.
LEGO AR integration. Screenshot: Apple
To cap off its AR news, Apple brought out some representatives from LEGO to show off how the building block giant will use AR to make a sort of Sims-style experience with its play sets. It was by far the most feature-rich demo shown on stage today.
The LEGO reps presented a single, hand-built "Assembly Square" LEGO set. In the demo, up to four players could open up their iPads and suddenly streets appeared around the building.
More LEGO buildings, characters and vehicles were added to fill out the town. Characters were alive inside the buildings and carrying on with their lives, and the characters the players controlled could drive the vehicles. Game missions such as putting out fires and saving bystanders from a burning building were shown off. And the whole world that gamers created could be saved and returned to at any time.