Virtual reality (VR) is taking the world by storm. Across the country, people are donning headsets and venturing into new, immersive worlds, tethered to their PCs or games consoles. There’s another platform for virtual reality and its cousin augmented reality (AR), though: the mobile phone.
Of the two major mobile operating system vendors, Apple and Google, the latter is the only one to venture into VR headsets to date. In November 2016, Google launched its Daydream virtual reality software that uses an Android phone placed into a Google-developed headset viewer.
In 2017, the search engine giant announced version No. 2 of that software, with new features including the ability for your phone to send you notifications in your virtual reality world. It will also soon ship standalone VR headsets that don’t need a phone at all.
The company has already enhanced its YouTube video service with 360 degree virtual reality videos that put viewers in the center of the action. Soon, it will give people scattered across the world a chance to watch those videos together in the same virtual reality space.
Apple is behind in VR, but has reportedly been working on it for years. In 2017 it purchased Vrvana, a company that makes mixed reality headsets, for a rumored $30 million. This suggests the company is on its way to delivering an immersive headset of some sort.
AR on mobile
VR on mobile may be cheaper than VR on a PC, but it ignores one of a mobile phone’s biggest benefits: the ability to use these immersive worlds when you’re on the move. This is why AR, which treats your smart phone as a window onto a mixed digital/physical world, carries such promise.
Pokémon Go was one of the first augmented reality apps to capture the public’s imagination, as thousands around the world chased tiny virtual creatures around real-world streets. Soon, companies were using the game to their advantage by buying ‘lure modules’ that encouraged virtual Pokemon to spawn more often on their premises, drawing customers in.
A year later, Apple and Google both enhanced their systems, making it easier for developers to create AR software for their phones. In June, Apple unveiled version 11 of its iOS iPhone operating system, complete with ARKit, a software toolkit enabling developers to quickly create AR applications.
Apple also included a telltale new feature in its latest processor, the A11, found in 2017’s newest iPhones. CEO Tim Cook flagged its “neural engine,” which helps it to process images more efficiently, making it a potential performance booster for applications including AR.
Two months later, Google responded with ARCore, its equivalent toolkit for the Android operating system.
How brands are adopting mobile AR
Brands are already beginning to use mobile AR in interesting ways. One early adopter is Major League Baseball, which partnered with Apple to demonstrate AR technology in a forthcoming version of its At Bat app. The app will enable viewers to point their iPhone at the live-action players and see stats for them floating on the screen.
Google is already showcasing examples of ARCore apps, such as an architectural viewer that lets you walk around a future home renovation, or skills training apps that teach you how to use machines in real time. That would be so much cooler than trying to read the manual for your new espresso maker.
Early attempts at mobile AR are limited, but it’s early days yet. Alongside this brand activity we’re also seeing innovative games such as The Machines, in which people can play out a virtual tabletop battle in their living room.
As developers explore these mobile VR and AR environments with the help of the toolkits built into the two most popular mobile operating systems, we can expect more innovation coming down the pipe. Perhaps before too long, your phone’s screen will be mainly used as a window into other worlds, rather than simply as an interface to Candy Crush.
About the Author
Danny Bradbury has been writing about technology and business since 1989. His clients have included the Financial Times, the Guardian, and Canada's National Post.
All content provided herein is for educational purposes only. It is provided “as is” and neither the author nor Office Depot, Inc. warrant the accuracy of the information provided, nor do they assume any responsibility for errors, omissions or contrary interpretation of the subject matter herein.
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