Apple's WWDC is all about the company's decision to join the XR revolution. The company didn't say as much, but many of the announcements made today center on virtual reality or augmented reality, both directly and indirectly. The iMac got better discrete graphics, MacBooks got support for external GPUs, macOS got an updated graphics API, and iOS got a suite of new-to-Apple technologies called ARKit.
The Mac Sprints Into VR With Support From HTC, Steam, Epic Games, Unity
WWDC kicked off with a bunch of updates for the Mac. (There was also stuff about Amazon Prime Video heading to Apple products and new features for the Apple Watch.) First came the news about supporting external GPUs. Then came the iMac Pro, which will ship with dedicated graphics powered by AMD's Vega GPU architecture, and then there were updates to existing Macs. These updates are sure to please anyone gaming on a Mac, but those improvements are probably secondary to finally bringing VR support to macOS.
That was made clear by the software announcement Apple squeezed in between those hardware updates: Valve is bringing Steam VR to macOS, and both Unreal Engine and Unity will allow developers to create VR experiences for the Mac. This means devs will be able to create and distribute VR software for macOS. Apple didn't say much about how you'll experience those apps, but HTC sent Tom's Hardware this message:
Moments ago at WWDC, Apple announced they are embracing VR and demo’d [sic] VIVE. Vive represents the best VR experience in the market and Apple is validating that by demo'ing [sic] Vive on stage for developers and content creators who are making the future experiences that will drive the Virtual Reality industry for years to come. [...] The momentum Vive has right now with the biggest tech brands across the globe is unmatched. Recent announcements and partnerships with Google, Intel and now Apple, all in the last month alone, show that Vive is the most preferred VR platform available.
Mark another "win" for HTC--in the last month alone, the company announced that Vive will head to Google's updated Daydream platform and, now, helped Apple announce its entry into VR. It's also a "win" for Apple. All the graphics cards in all the world can't let someone experience VR without the requisite software (made by tools like Unreal Engine and Unity) and content delivery platforms (like Steam VR) with support for HMDs (like the Vive). The company didn't take a baby step into VR; it sprinted to catch up to all the progress Windows PCs have made in recent years.
ARKit Brings Mobile AR To The iPhone
Apple didn't focus only on its desktop platform. The company also announced that iOS 11, which is set to debut this fall, will include a new ARKit platform. The company made a point of contrasting ARKit with the "augmented reality" found in apps like Pokemon Go. That game might have helped familiarize people with the concept of AR, but it didn't meet the strictest definition of the term, which requires the digital world to respond to the physical one. ARKit is not Pokemon Go. Rather, it's Apple's response to Google's Tango platform, as you can see in its list of features:
- Fast, stable motion tracking
- Plane estimation with basic boundaries
- Ambient lighting estimation
- Scale estimation
- Support for Unity, Unreal, SceneKit
- Xcode app templates
Apple showed off ARKit with a simple demo involving the placement of a virtual mug on a coffee table. The mug detected the table's position, of course, and rested on top of it. Then a virtual lamp joined the party, and Apple called attention to the dynamic shadow created by the mug. If that wasn't exciting enough (and if you're familiar with AR it probably wasn't), it also had Wingnut AR demo a game on that same table. The whole thing "lived" on the table and responded to whatever the phone's camera picked up. Again--not mind-blowing, but still pretty neat.
Some devs, including Ikea and Pokemon Go developer Niantic, have already signed on to make AR apps for iOS devices. Apple didn't offer much information about the ARKit's requirements, but it did claim that it will be "the largest AR platform in the world" when it debuts, and that "hundreds of millions" of iPhones will be part of that platform. Unless the company's planning to sell hundreds of millions of units of the next iPhone (which wasn't announced today), that means at least some of the current models will be able to offer some form of AR experience.
End To End For A Quick Beginning
It's not hard to figure out why Apple had to play catch-up with the XR industry: Its desktop hardware is weak, macOS isn't all that attractive to game devs, and it simply didn't offer the tools developers would need to implement AR on iOS. All of these problems stemmed from the company's much tighter grip on its products than its competitors. Windows users are free to pop in a graphics card as soon as their wallets and systems allow. The software is more open, too, which has long made it the platform of choice for game devs and innovators alike.
Similar things are true about the mobile side. Google had a head start on XR because Android is a much larger platform that runs on devices of varying power. Manufacturers are free to do pretty much anything they want with Android, and that frees up Google to introduce platforms that other companies have the option to support or not support. Microsoft and Google both have the flexibility needed to quickly adopt emerging tech.
But that can also be a problem for those companies. Microsoft believes XR is the future of Windows, sure, but what's it going to do to make that future happen? It has very little control over the hardware you put in your system, and although it can define specs for manufacturers all day long, those hardware makers are mostly left to their own devices. And that bit about manufacturers being free to support or not support Tango? Many have chosen the latter. Right now you have very few options for a Tango smartphone--the Asus ZenFone AR and the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro.
Apple's control over its platforms means that soon, many of its customers will have XR-capable products whether they care about XR or not. There are some configuration options (beefier processors, displays of varying sizes or resolution, storage type and space, etc.), but for the most part, an iMac Pro is going to be an iMac Pro. If you buy one, you're going to have VR available to you. An iPhone is an iPhone. If you buy one, or even if you simply update a recent model to iOS 11, you're going to have AR available to you. Apple has deemed it, and so it shall be.