The human being dreams and experiments with alternative realities and virtual entities for decades. This incursion took place both in movies and science fiction shows, where it was common to see holograms, and in the first technologies developed by several pioneers such as Ivan Sutherland, who invented the first helmet with a screen in the seventies, or Louis B. Rosenberg
, creator of the first augmented reality device for the US air forces in the nineties. The video game company Nintendo also experimented with these technologies with a device called Virtual Boy, remembered today as one of its great failures.
All were commercial experiments and failures. The technology had not yet advanced enough and its use was anecdotal, beyond some uses in recreational machines during its peak in the nineties. In 2012 everything changed when Google launches Glass, its controversial glasses that were the first augmented reality device marketed to the public. It was a futuristic product, without a clear utility and that soon fell into oblivion. Glass was reserved for enthusiasts who wanted to show off at technology fairs; the generic consumer did not see the utility in the society of such a strange device. However, that product and the Oculus Rift gave the kick-off to a race to change the ways in which the consumer can be informed and entertained. Samsung Facebook, Sony, Google, HTC, Microsoft, and Apple are now the main heavyweights of a business that until years ago seemed more removed from films like Terminator than real-life technology.
Despite this, it is not the innovation in kits that drives the augmented reality app development
, but the smartphone, the center of all trends, services and new products. Pokémon GO was a success and hooked parents and children of media world who were for weeks looking for the rarest Pokémon with the camera and GPS of their phones. Snapchat became a very popular application thanks to its Stories and its facial filters. Google and Apple, which control almost all of the mobile applications market between them, have already moved with the two augmented reality application development kits that will arrive this year in the latest version of their respective operating systems.
A matter of scale
In order for augmented reality to be used daily by millions of users, scalability is required. There Apple has the advantage. At the last developer conference, the company presented ARKit, a set of tools for developers of augmented reality applications for iPhone and iPad. It will be compatible with all models from the iPhone 6S so that Apple will overnight from millions of devices compatible with this technology. The demonstrations presented surprised the press and the developers, who have already been testing the capabilities of the tools. The results are surprising considering that no additional hardware is required. Unlike augmented reality applications such as Pokémon GO
, ARKit introduces virtual elements within a three-dimensional position: a cup on the table, a character walking or a piece of furniture inside a room.
The range of possibilities is enormous: from an interactive Ikea catalog in your own living room to a short with 3D characters in the middle of the street. The tracking of the scene is done with the camera, accelerometer, and gyroscope of the terminal. With the iPhone 7 Plus and later models, it will be made more precisely thanks to the double camera that detects depth.
"ARKit is another step in the trend of providing production technology that until recently was exclusive to Hollywood studios around the world," says Jose Saez-Merino, an animator at the video game company Blizzard Entertainment. "The big jump is to be able to follow the scene, one of the most difficult things, with the mobile automatically, without even thinking about it, now the user only has to worry about creating the scene and directing the action: It is a world of possibilities for those who had good ideas, but not the knowledge or the money to do it ".
ARKit is a world of possibilities for those who had good ideas, but not the knowledge or the money to do it.
Google has not fallen asleep on its laurels and presented in August 2017 ARCore, its own augmented reality application development kit. It is the successor of Tango, its failed attempt to make third-party manufacturers adopt their augmented reality technologies model by model.
The Internet giant expects ARCore
to be available to more than 100 million users, starting with the owners of Samsung's Galaxy S8 and its own Pixel terminal line. The diversity of the Android ecosystem will be its main challenge to the unified Apple platform.
ARCore is crucial for Google. Without a simplified and universal application development kit for augmented reality, it could be a clear disadvantage when large video game studios for mobile applications like Instagram adopt this technology. Pokémon GO exceeded one billion in revenue in just six months. It would be a big problem that the next highly successful video game or that the best Snapchat filters were only available for iPhone.
The next decade
The smartphone is the best device to bring technology to millions of people, but it is not the ideal implementation. It is a small window of four or five inches to something new. It is not what you imagine when talking about augmented reality, although it is the most convenient.
Microsoft is working on its HoloLens, an expensive, bulky device with a small field of vision that mixes augmented reality with virtual reality. Although they are glasses, the augmented reality is limited to a small frame in the center. It's the first model, and it costs $ 3,000. MagicLeap is also working on its augmented reality kit. At the moment, its technology is still a mystery except for a small and select group of people.
Developments like these, nowadays inaccessible to the public, will run parallel to the massive adoption of augmented reality applications in mobile phones until reaching the device in the companies and users think: a pair of glasses or contact lenses that show everything that we see with superimposed virtual elements that inform us where the nearest cafeteria is, the information of a monument or the price of the restaurant menu that we are seeing. For companies like Facebook, Google or Snapchat is one of the main objectives in the next decade: break the chains of their business and remove them from the screens to be installed in everything that the eye can see. It only remains to see when and how.