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A Few Good Apps Won’t Save Apple AR — The Future Will

This post was originally featured on Forbes.com on October 09, 2017

These first few weeks of new AR-enabled apps have brought us time wasters and games with a little gee-whiz and a dollop of disappointment. It is pretty surprising Apple didn’t have a few flagship apps ready to go at launch. Good opportunity for Apple Maps to get ahead of Google, for example. Although missing infrastructure might account for that. More on that shortly.

Since Apple’s new Augmented Reality enabled operating system, iOS 11 went live on September 19, I’ve tried dozens of apps developed with Apple’s elegant ARKit. Fourth Transformation author Bob Scoble reports he’s tried 140 new apps and wrote about it on Facebook. Here’s the thing about testing that many apps: you only have a few minutes for each demo. Even with scrupulous notes, in your mind they blend together. As a result, when I tried all the apps Bob recommended, of the 40 he liked, I found only a few worthwhile.

Until we’re further into the phone upgrade cycle, and until the big boys (Facebook, Instagram, Google, Amazon, Snapchat, Twitter, Linkedin, etc.) play their hands, a full analysis of this first stage of mobile AR adoption is premature. Of this I am certain: AR is going to be integrated into every important app we use every day. It’s going to be so common it’s invisible. Several years from now, we may not use the word “augmented” and “app” together in the same sentence.

Promoted from the stage of Apple’s press event on Sept. 12 by Tim Cook, Machines is an action strategy game that doesn’t live up to the hype.

In addition to Scoble’s list, I also tried apps recommended by friends and acquaintances on social media. A couple of the apps were randomly chosen because they were promoted in the App Store (never take their word for it, big mistake). Like all tech writers, I am spam bombed by the usual phalanx of promoters and, in a weak moment, someone will get my attention. Finally, full disclosure, a couple of apps I like were made by developers with whom I am previously acquainted and whose work I admire. I’ve written about both of them in the past.

I’m getting a little addicted to Stack AR. You can take it anywhere.

Not surprisingly, the apps you pay for are way, way better than the apps that are free. However, buyer beware: without writers like me (who do their homework so you don’t have to) you won’t be able to tell which AR apps are good and which are bad, and most of them are bad. AR-enabled apps I particularly liked are Mike Levine and Phil Tippett’s Hologrid Monster, Phantogeist by Chip Sensini, Stack AR, and Zombie Gunship Revenant. Not surprisingly, these were existing games ported from another platform.

When writing about games, I feel the need to disclose that I’m not a gamer. I give a thumbs up to any app I can figure out quickly and use twice for fun. Games get extra points from me if they make my arm tired from holding out my iPhone screen. I love using the camera as the interface; it’s one of the delightful improvements in Apple’s new OS. That said, holding your arm out to look through a tiny screen has got to be one of the worst form factors ever accidentally invented by man.

Turned based strategy game Hologrid Monster features characters developed by Phil Tippett.

Mike Levine, Founder, and CEO of game developer Happy Giant, creator of Hologrid Monster, has been working in digital media for over 20 years. A veteran of LucasArts Entertainment, Levine began talking to friends at Tippett who were doing tests using fantastic miniature creatures designed by Tippett personally. “HoloChess was our inspiration, but we had to create the gameplay entirely from scratch, as this was a new game and experience, and HoloChess really was a 9-second scene, with little thought of true gameplay.” The turn-based strategy game can be used in single player mode or against real opponents. Someone always seems to be there to play me when I choose the multi-player mode.

Your Phantogeist explainer guy. Don’t shoot him.

In Phantogeist, a friendly alien helps you identify semi-transparent bad aliens. The thing is, you’re not on another planet, you’re in a parking lot, or living room, or mall. Attackers come at you from every direction. It’s social, too, as multiple players can join the hunt in real time. I played over half an hour struggling to boost my score. It was my longest session of AR gameplay.

Originally developed for Google’s Android Tango AR system in 2015, Phantogeist has been re-created as an AR game.

Both developers I spoke with reported they are up against the usual crush of competition in the crowded app store, a lot of tech problems on the back end, and very tepid sales. “We’re mixed in with a lot of free, first-person AR shooters that were built in a month. That muddies the water. It is the same problem premium mobile has had for a while. People just want things for free,” said Sineni. “We are considering making the demo free and unlocking the campaign mode just to get it in more hands.”

The free apps are pretty much what you’d expect, a mix of marketing novelties and light diversions. Though I finally got to fly an AR plane without crashing it, I’m partial to ShARk, which lets a shark swim around in your office, car, yeard, etc. I liked it so much I paid $0.99 to upgrade to the Great White. Taped it, put it up on Facebook. Got likes. I just used it in a restaurant the other night to show someone what AR is. Mission accomplished. If only I had an endless stream of four-year-olds stopping by, I’d be the smartphone Joey Nickelspulling digital coins from their ears.

AR Airplanes are much easier to fly outside, just like the real thing.

Holo, by volumetric capture company 8i, is a free app which enables users to place a virtual, animated Spiderman or John Hamm on your desk, or scale them up and take a selfie. I also enjoyed placing an Ikea desk in a random outdoor place. To me, the Ikea app is a mere a novelty, though it could tremendously useful at the right rare moment when shopping for furniture. It’s a good demo of one of the practical things that AR can do.

Phantogeist creator Chip Sineni summed it up best. “In Phantogeist we do some unique stuff where we try to make the player move around their space. There are projectiles you have to dodge, there is virtual cover you can get behind, there are threats on the floor you have to move away from, you can get into battles with portals on the wall. But. We still don’t have the tech to really know what your space is, using a sofa for cover, making creatures aware of how your house works, etc. As a developer, the latest SDKs from Apple give us the ability to move in space, but it didn’t solve room and object awareness, occlusion, location persistence, etc. Those problems are unfortunately more difficult and probably further out, and the best, most clever apps will be optimized to not needing those solved.”

AR Sports Basketball is one of the more amusing free diversions in the app store.

Apple AR is notable more for what it isn’t than what it is. In our disappointment (c’mon, admit it, you’re disappointed), let’s reflect on the promised land, because a window into the future has opened, and we’re already walking through it. We’re going to a place where AR does facial recognition, real-time, spatialized, depth sensing localization and mapping, and object recognition, although there is no “AR cloud” that allows us to take full advantage of that. The AR cloud is a big deal. “The ARKit release is the best thing that happened to the AR industry, but massive adoption of AR apps will take more than that. It will happen with The AR Cloud — when AR experiences persist in the real world across space, time, and devices.” Said Ori Anbar, Founder of Super Ventures, in a recent post on Medium. Data has to be geolocated and stored, waiting for the right app to come along to access it. The AR cloud is the thing we have to have that we didn’t know existed. Solve this, and you turn into a unicorn.

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