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Augment Your Reality

The ZenFone AR is one of the first devices that supports Google’s Project Tango initiative

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I was midway putting the new Asus ZenFone AR through its paces when I started thinking about the state of augmented reality, the tech that lets you superimpose computer-generated imagery on top of your view of the real world using your smartphone or a pair of smart goggles.

The ZenFone AR is one of the first devices that supports Google’s Project Tango initiative, which uses advanced camera and sensor hardware to simulate the way you or I process visual information.

Thereon, compatible apps on a Tango-ready phone can be aware of the physical dimensions of the space around you, and use this data to simulate experiences specific to the world around you, all the while being aware of its position in space. Put simply, the phone is aware of where you are, and how you move from one room to another, and personalises the experience from room to room — one Google demo even showed off how an app on a Tango phone can become your tour guide in a museum, offering you viewing routes and details as you move from one exhibit to another. If you see some of the other demos, including some that were built for retailers and enterprises, you’d probably agree that Tango has amazing potential. With the headstart that Google gave the platform, you’d also think Tango would be winning some serious consumer mindshare in the augmented reality space.

Except it isn’t. Tango is available on barely a couple of phones, and isn’t even being picked up by early adopters. Instead, Apple’s ARKit, a new set of tools and frameworks in the upcoming iOS 11 that enables iOS developers to easily create augmented reality experiences, is quickly garnering significant consumer and developer interest. Ever since I saw Apple roll out the first beta of iOS 11 at their Worldwide Developers Conference in June, developers big and small have been pulling together a steady stream of ARKit powered demos, each one more impressive than the other — check out the site for some of best demos out there.

Now, while Apple is far from being able to claim it invented mobile augmented reality, ARKit in iOS 11 may just help AR into the mainstream faster than anyone else. What makes Apple’s ARKit all the more compelling is that users won’t even need Apple’s newest iPhones to enjoy augmented reality apps. Apple maintains that any phone released after 2015, the iPhone 6S and SE included, will be able to run ARKit-based apps simply by upgrading to iOS 11. That’s several millions of readily compatible iPhones and iPads, not to mention every single iOS device from here on out. Even for developers, the price of entry is as simple as owning a recent iPhone or iPad, which means most developers already have an ARKit-ready device in their pockets… today.  

You can’t say the same about Google’s Project Tango, which not only needs to convince Android hardware partners to put a specialised camera-sensor module on the back of their phones, but also sell these specialised, somewhat bulkier, handsets instead of sleeker ones without Tango. Of course, the Tango approach excludes nearly every single Android device already out there in the market.

So, while Tango might ultimately be better at mapping 3D spaces more accurately simply because it has more information (from the cameras and sensors) to work with, it may be overkill, realistically speaking. As of writing this, Google’s launched ARCore, a lightweight software-only AR approach not dissimilar to ARKit, that it plans to roll out to the Pixel, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and more devices over time, but Android’s notorious issues around fragmentation may well hold it back.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tushar Kanwar

The author is Technology Columnist and Program Manager in Bengaluru, India

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