Comment & Opinion

Augmented reality is the next frontier for smartphones as VR falters

Augmented reality is the next frontier for smartphones as VR falters

While consumer augmented reality headsets may still be years away, from almost nowhere AR has sprung itself to the forefront of smartphone innovation.

In the public consciousness, it all started with Niantic’s location-based AR game Pokemon GO.

It’s a great title that blends AR and location-based gameplay (harnessing tech built from its previously title, Ingress, and lessons from its first app Field Trip) that effectively utilises its IP to great effect.

It was AR’s killer app straight out the gate before the public even knew they wanted it. Something that succinctly shows off the potential of AR in an entertaining way.

Comparisons with virtual reality may be harsh, but VR has been stuck without a killer app and developers have had their hands on it for years.

It’s all about AR now. Expensive headsets not required. Just the camera on the phone you’re already going to get. And it’s the next frontier for smartphones that are struggling to find other innovative new features.

Big investments

The biggest companies in the world have all cottoned on to how just big AR could be. Apple has developed ARKit, while Google has released ARCore (effectively a rebranded Tango that's more accessible).

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also been touting its potential as the company gears up for its own AR platform that will support games and other location-based activities.

The investment in AR (in Apple’s case instead of in VR) and the accessibility of these tools speaks volumes. Somehow, AR feels like it’s here and now. VR is now the distant prospect after its slow start.

We’ve had Pokemon GO, but lots of other exciting apps and games are on the way now for AR.

Apple’s special event keynote spent some time showing off the AR features of the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and brand new iPhone X, as well as on augmented reality games as Apple brought out yet another company to show off their project.

Chinese developer Directive Games showed off real-time MOBA-like title The Machines, coming exclusively to iOS this month.

Harnessing ARKit, the game is able to turn a table into a warzone, in which players can battle it out in local and online multiplayer.

Previously Apple showed off the impressive sci-fi wasteland demo from Peter Jackson’s Wingnut studio, which took advantage of ARKit and Unreal Engine 4.

Another hotly anticipated AR title is The Walking Dead: Our World from Next Games. The developer is taking the popular IP and letting players live out the zombie apocalypse in the real world. This announcement came after the studio acquired Hidden Heroes developer Lume Games.

You can check out more excellent ARKit demos (27 at the time of writing) in this list from our sister-site TheVirtualReport.biz.

Accessible form factor

These AR experiences work on multiple fronts. The technology lends itself well for practical real-world uses (measuring a table, for example), it can be used socially and for games (see Pokemon GO, The Machines) and doesn’t require an expensive headset in its current form (not withstanding HoloLens).

As Niantic CEO John Hanke says, AR glasses are coming, but they’ll take time. But what better way right now to get people onboard with AR than the smartphone? VR has proven a difficult marketing proposition as it’s technology that consumers are unfamiliar with until they try it.

The sell for specialist AR hardware will be difficult, but it will at least have familiarity behind the concept to support it.

We recently asked indie developers for their thoughts on ARKit and augmented reality for phones, the consensus was positive and optimistic.

“Where VR cuts you off, AR opens up the world,” said Perchang Co-founder Ben Murch, who offered up various use cases such as playing a virtual tabletop game with friends, all on their smartphones.

Dumpling Design Studio Head Travis Ryan said: “It’s bloody exciting, isn't it? A new technology within reach of a vast audience and a chance to rewrite the rulebooks; opportunities like that don’t come around very often.

“At this point, it's clear VR isn't going mainstream any time soon; cost, set-up and its isolating nature, not to mention the technical and physiological impact, were all huge oversights when considering a new technology for the mass audience.”

We were all sold the VR dream, but right now it’s coming up short.

With AR, as the Apple mantra goes, “it just works”.

You can discover more about augmented reality at XR Connects Helsinki 2017 on September 19th and 20th.


Senior Editor

Craig Chapple is Senior Editor of PocketGamer.biz. He was previously Deputy Editor at Develop and Online Editor at Nintendo of Europe.

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Gaming Unicorn Marketing Director
Funny to read this, given that I watched the Apple event this week in AltSpace VR, in a beautiful virtual room with a crowd of smart, chatty avatars that love tech. The general consensus in that space was that AR was a gimmick not compelling enough to justify standing up and circling around your coffee table. On a basic level, we've seen "AR" tech like that for a long time; even 3DS launched with "AR Cards" that you could use with the device. VR - at its best - provides a sense of social presence that is unmatched by chat rooms, WOW, etc. It's magic. Given that it's absent on iPhone, this will be the first cycle where I purchase a Samsung phone instead - specifically so I can access both Daydream and Samsung VR. Another important thing about mobile VR - it's given us a space that is generally safe from the predatory uncapped gambling monetization systems that have swallowed up the rest of the mobile gaming market. If AR can stay premium, too, I'll be a lot more interested.
Craig Chapple Editor at PocketGamer.biz
I think a lot of VR (in general) right now offers poor control systems and as said above, lacks any kind of real accessibility to its content/products. It's something that developers like more than consumers.

It's fun but it still doesn't beat my TV or smartphone. PC offers a poor value proposition at the moment, while purchasing even a cheap VR headset is proving to be a barrier (and what you get for that isn't fantastic).
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