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Google and Apple Take Augmented Reality Mainstream


Augmented reality (AR) is now a reality, thanks to two of the biggest tech companies in the world. Google, which first ventured into AR with Project Tango in 2014, is going allin with ARCore.

Augmented reality (AR) is now a reality, thanks to two of the biggest tech companies in the world. Google, which first ventured into AR with Project Tango in 2014, is going allin with ARCore. Unlike Tango, which required manufacturers to equip smartphones with specialized cameras and depth sensors, ARCore is designed to work with new ASUS, Huawei, LG and Samsung devices that run on Android Nougat 7.0 or higher, including the Google Pixel and the Samsung Galaxy S8.

This second attempt at bringing AR mainstream by Google comes on the heels of Apple’s commitment to the technology. In June, Apple unveiled ARKit, a developer platform that allows everyone from game makers to tech innovators to blend the real world with the virtual using existing iPhones and iPads. This immediately opens the technology up to hundreds of millions of devices. Apple doubled down on AR with the introduction of its Apple iPhone 8 and iPhone X, which add advanced cameras and 4K visuals to the mix.

According to Greenlight Insights, the augmented reality industry will grow from $3.6 billion in 2019 to $36 billion by 2023. In that same time, AR headmounted displays (HMDs) will grow from 1.9 million to 30 million units shipped.

Alexis Macklin, analyst at Greenlight Insights, said that currently 95 percent of all spending on HMDs are made by commercial buyers. “However, as standalone, consumer HMDs are introduced and become affordable due to production cost reductions, we expect consumers to account for an increasing share of HMD sales,” Macklin explains. “In the years 2019 to 2023, consumer spending on AR HMDs is forecasted to grow to account for 53 percent of all category spending.”

Creating Cool Experiences

Xbox One X will upgrade the visual fidelity of all Xbox One games through high dynamic range (HDR)

The global marketing to this mass market audience took place during much of 2016, thanks to the phenomenal success of Niantic and Nintendo’s Pokémon GO game on Android and iOS. “We saw some really interesting hints at AR early on with Pokémon GO and the possibilities of locationbased entertainment, but this is about to go really big with perfect position tracking in the real world,” Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, explains. “It really sets the stage for an interesting area of industry growth where we combine mobile products with immersive 3D graphics and see something that’s quite different than the mobile games dynamic that existed previously.

Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 technology supports both ARKit and ARCore, allowing developers to create experiences that can connect with both Apple’s and Google’s install bases. During Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, Peter Jackson’s Wingnut Studios debuted an AR video game that came alive on a tabletop when viewed through an iPad, offering a window into the future of interactive entertainment where miniature holographic space ships and marines come alive.

“What Peter Jackson’s team is bringing to AR is very high-quality, photo-realistic, almost movie-class graphics,” Sweeney says. “It’s just astonishing to pull up your iPad and look at a science-fiction space battle scene happen right there in your living room with 3D objects. As you move around, it all tracks perfectly.
That’s a great step, and this is just the very beginning. You can imagine new types of hardware coming over the years, new form factors, and this becoming a bigger and bigger part of our lives.”

Unreal also powers Directive Games’ The Machines AR game, which debuted at Apple’s unveiling of the iPhone 8 and iPhoneX devices. Both are designed to support augmented reality through a new camera and the A11 Bionic chip to support 4K visuals in a multiplayer experience that comes to life on a tabletop.

Directive Games CEO Atli Mar says AR is an amazing evolution in how games are played and experienced. “You can use the position in the real world to gain a tactical advantage in the game,” he adds. “You are not just controlling the game. You are in the game.”

Apple also showcased Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade from developer Pixel Toys at the event. Gaming remains a lead application for AR, just as it has for VR. But AR has a much larger immediate audience to connect with across mobile devices without the expensive up-front costs of VR.

Dave Burke, vice president of Android Engineering, says ARCore brings AR to more than two billion active devices and has been built to support future releases.
“We’ve been developing the fundamental technologies that power mobile AR over the last three years with Tango, and ARCore is built on that work,” Burke explains. “We’re targeting 100 million devices at the end of the preview by working with manufacturers like ASUS, Huawei, LG, Samsung and others to make this possible with a consistent bar for quality and high performance.”

Both AR platforms focus on three core competencies: motion tracking (keeping the virtual objects stationary as the phone’s camera moves), detecting horizontal planes (many AR objects appear on the floor or a table) and light estimation (which creates realistic lighting and shadows for virtual objects). They also support the leading game engines, including Unity, Unreal and Jave/OpenGL, which means this fall, a wide array of games and other applications will blend the virtual and real world in new ways.

Niantic, the company that ushered AR into the mainstream with Pokémon GO last year, is supporting both new AR technologies. “At Niantic we are thrilled to see the amazing pace of AR development across the industry,” says John Hanke, CEO of Niantic. “We look forward to begin exploring the new kinds of interactions that can be unlocked by these latest innovations.”

While VR has stolen the headlines, as well as billions of dollars in VC funding, over the past few years, 2017 is shaping up to be the dawn of AR. And these first games and apps are just the beginning of what this new technology can deliver.

Lenovo Brings Star Wars into the Real World

Ahead of the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Lenovo has teamed up with Disney Interactive to launch an augmented reality gaming platform. The $200 bundle comes packed with an AR-ENABLED MIRAGE HEADSET that’s compatible with Android and iOS smartphones, a detailed replica Luke Skywalker lightsaber and tracking beacons. Gamers can download the "Star Wars: Jedi Challenges" app and play a trio of AR games at launch, including lightsaber battles against the likes of Darth Vader, Kylo Ren and Darth Maul, a holochess game inspired by the original film, and a tower defense strategy game that recreates battles like Hoth.

Star Wars has always been based in AR from the first movie 40 years ago with the Holochess game Luke Skywalker plays aboard the Millennium Falcon, to the holograms of Princess Leia and Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Lenovo Vice President of Global Consumer Marketing Matt Bereda explains.

Lenovo employs insideout tracking cameras in the headset to pick up the light from the tracking beacons to give the player a fixed point when battling virtual enemies, while leveraging the light from the lightsaber to add the virtual glowing beam to the physical controller. Bereda said the process is very complex, but results in an experience that’s as fun to watch someone play as it is to play firsthand. Players can view their surroundings through the visor, while spectators can see the reelection of the gameplay on the outside of the visor. “While the launch content isn’t based on The Last Jedi, Bereda said because this is an application, Disney Interactive can send updates to increase the number of experiences.

“If there’s a new bad guy who shows up in the next movie, they could make an appearance in the game,” Bereda explains. “There’s an opportunity to extend this app to be richer over time through adding new levels, characters and experiences.”

Microsoft Ushers In 4K Gaming

Microsoft has now officially jumped into the era of 4K gaming with its $500 XBOX ONE X CONSOLE. The tech giant has priced the new, more powerful, hardware to target the more hardcore gaming audience at first. It also marks a shift in the way the console business is evolving to follow more in line with
the smartphone and PC ecosystems, which release more regular devices with gradual upgrades rather than a brand new console every six or seven years.

At least until the PlayStation 5 is announced, the Xbox One X is the most powerful console on the market today. It’s 30 percent faster than the original Xbox One, which launched in 2013, while its GPU is 4.6 times more powerful. The console’s 6 teraflops of graphical processing power allows games like Forza Motorsports 7 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War to be created with 4K resolutions and fast frame rates.

Xbox One X is the only console to include a 4K Ultra HD drive, allowing gamers to watch 4K movies on discs. Sony’s $400 PlayStation 4 Pro allows for 4K movie streaming, but features a standard Blu-ray drive.

Samsung has teamed up with Microsoft to cross-promote its QLED 4K TVS, which have been featured at events like E3, Gamescom and PAX West. Xbox One X will upgrade the visual fidelity of all Xbox One games through high dynamic range (HDR), but specific games like Final Fantasy XV and Forza Motorsport 7 have been designed to take full advantage of the new hardware.

This new marketing push will help drive sales of 4K UHD TVs this fall and into next year. Michael Pachter, video game analyst at Wedbush Securities, forecasts Microsoft will sell one million Xbox One X consoles this year.

But once the price drop comes, 4K gaming will become mainstream. There’s no going back. And with Sony promoting its own less powerful 4K console (which launched last fall and features 4K visuals and HDR support) alongside Bravia 4K UHD TVs, the leap from HD to 4K is happening now.

John Gaudiosi

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