That experience was created using ARCore, a set of software tools from Google that makes it easier for developers to overlay digital images on the real world through a mobile device’s camera.
Apple and Facebook both released AR developer tools last year. There are iPhone apps for arranging virtual furniture in your living room or playing games that seem to float in midair. But the sheer size of the Android phone market might just be what finally enables developers to discover something mobile AR has so far been lacking—a killer app.
The most promise so far has emerged in gaming. Analytics firm Sensor Tower says games dominate the 10 most downloaded apps built with Apple’s set of AR tools, ARKit, between September 2017 (when ARKit launched) and the end of the year. Still, nothing has yet come close to the wild success of the Pokémon Go app, built before ARKit even existed, which sent hordes of people hunting for virtual creatures when it was released in 2016.
The Android ecosystem is vast; by the middle of last year there were estimated to be more than two billion Android phones in use, compared with 700 million iPhones. Only the 100 million Androids with the most modern cameras and sensors will be able to support apps built with ARCore initially, but the proportion will grow significantly over the next couple of years. The prospect of billions of users should be a huge incentive to developers.
There’s plenty of room for improvement. Many AR apps for both Android and Apple’s iOS are still pretty lousy at things like placing virtual objects on surfaces that aren’t perfectly flat, or accounting for changes in real-world lighting. ARCore makes it easier to position, say, a virtual puppy on a curved, textured surface like a cushion, and to adjust its shadow as the lighting shifts. The software is also good at tracking a phone’s motion, which helps keep digital objects tethered to the same real-world spot as you move your phone around.
Like Apple’s ARKit, at its most basic level, ARCoreis a developer framework, or a set of developer tools and services, that allows developers of apps and games to write software that will allow their apps and games to easily use Google’s in-house developed AR tech to create great augmented reality experiences.
— Google’s ARCore isn’t an app you can download. It’s a software development kit (SDK), to help developers create AR apps. Right now, it runs on Pixel and Galaxy S8 phones.
In addition to Snap’s experience, Google is partnering with a few other developers to celebrate ARCore 1.0’s launch. Sotheby’s International Realty, furniture company Otto, and e-commerce company JD.com will let you preview rooms, furniture, appliances, and other goods. Porsche will let Android users check out a version of its Mission E concept vehicle, and an upcoming mobile game called Ghostbusters World will (naturally) let players trap ghosts that appear in the real world. Google is also taking its platform outside the Play Store ecosystem in China, partnering with Xiaomi and Huawei to distribute ARCore-powered apps through independent app stores.
The long-term vision for ARCore and Lens is pretty exciting. As Chennapragada points out, Google could easily connect Android’s “camera-in” and “camera-out” functions. She offered the example of seeing a nice piece of furniture at a friend’s house, taking a picture for Google to identify, and automatically calling up a 3D model of it to preview back at home.
For now, though, both Lens and ARCore are relatively simple and limited. Even so, the next few weeks should see them become more sophisticated and more widely available.
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