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Apple might be right to undersell augmented reality

The Verge logo The Verge 9/14/2017 Adi Robertson
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One of Apple’s most interesting new mobile updates is an augmented reality toolkit called ARKit, which will show up on iPhones and iPads next week with iOS 11. Even before the official release, developers have used ARKit to realize some pretty clever ideas. But yesterday, ARKit felt like a minor sideshow to the big news of the day. Where Apple was effusive about augmented reality earlier this year at WWDC — and competitors Google and Facebook have steadily stressed it as a sea change in human-computer interaction — yesterday’s event made it feel like an extra perk. Writer and VR / AR evangelist Robert Scoble called it “totally undersold,” with “no effort at explaining why Apple's new OS is bringing a new world to us.”

But right now, that might be a smart idea.

Showcasing “augmented reality” on a smartphone comes with a lot of baggage. The term seems simultaneously futuristic and obsolete: it could refer to the awkward AR gimmicks of early smartphones, high-tech glasses that people might not use for years, or a conflation of both. ARKit has a lot of potential uses, but many of them are still pretty silly, which sits uneasily alongside lofty rhetoric about the future of computing. And, above all, people can’t use ARKit until iOS 11 is released next week, so they’d have to wait to check out anything Apple demonstrated at the keynote.

For an example of how overselling an idea too early can backfire, look at Google’s phone-based Daydream VR platform. Daydream is a great idea with good technical execution, but since so few phones supported the system at first, practically nobody could try it during the first wave of publicity. Google created a separate Play Store to make Daydream feel like an independent platform, but this also highlighted the small launch catalog. People were primed to pass judgment on Daydream as though it were a full-fledged computing ecosystem, when it was still largely an experiment.

Besides, watching an augmented or virtual reality demo isn’t the same as trying one. Apple used an AR demo to showcase the iPhone’s high-powered graphics, but as far as the actual augmented reality part goes, it’s more magical to see objects overlaid on your personal world than on a stage. Conversely, you don’t want to oversell a shiny demo that’s boring or glitchy in real life, especially if it’s one of the first examples people see of ARKit in action. With the iOS 11 release so close, and some apps already on the way, it’s worth letting consumers discover experiences on their own.

And unlike Daydream, which needed to convince users to buy $79 headsets, people will get the iPhone whether or not they care about ARKit. So developers can feel out the space with a relatively low profile, until there’s a proven market for Apple to highlight — the way apps or games weren’t originally a central selling point for iOS. Since Apple keeps mostly quiet about future tech like smart glasses, despite long-running speculation about an Apple headset, app makers also aren’t working under the weight of meeting expectations set by sci-fi movies.

I’m not sure Apple is doing this intentionally, or that it will stay on this path. Tim Cook lauded augmented reality after ARKit’s original announcement this summer, calling the technology “profound.” Apple doesn’t shy away from grandiose pronouncements, and it flew through a lot of features during yesterday’s keynote. It might simply be impressive that ARKit got as much time as it did.

Intentional or not, though, a low-key launch could be what augmented reality needs. AR will inevitably be treated as a successor to — or a replacement for — virtual reality, which has spent years in a brutal cycle of hype and disillusionment. By letting it grow organically before declaring a revolution, we could help make AR’s development a little calmer.

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