Google unveils augmented reality for Android to compete with Apple

Google has announced that it is adding augmented reality (AR) capabilities to its Android mobile operating system after Apple unveiled similar plans earlier this year.

Phone-based augmented reality (AR), in which digital objects are superimposed onto the real world on screen, hit the mainstream last year following the runaway success of Nintendo’s Pokémon Go app.

The game sent players into city streets, offices, parks and restaurants to search for and capture colourful animated characters.

Analysts expected the game to make $3bn (£2.3bn) for Apple over two years as gamers buy “PokéCoins” from its app store.

Google’s take on the technology will first be available on the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Google’s own Pixel phone. The company said in a blog post that it hoped to make the system, called ARCore, available to at least 100 million users, but did not set a date for a broad release.

In June Apple announced a similar system called ARKit that it plans to release this autumn on “hundreds of millions” of devices. Last year the company’s CEO Tim Cook said that Apple was investing heavily in AR technology and saw it as a cornerstone for its future success. 

Google and Apple will jockey for the attention of customers and software developers who will build the games, walking guides and other applications that would make AR a compelling feature.

Many tech industry leaders envision a future in which eyeglasses, car windshields and other surfaces can overlay digital information on the real world. Google and Microsoft Corp have already experimented with AR glasses.

“AR is big and profound,” Cook told investors earlier in August. “And this is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it.”

Apple and Google have had to make compromises to bring the technology to market.

In Apple’s case, the Cupertino, California-based company decided to make its AR system work with devices capable of running iOS 11, its next-generation operating system due out this autumn.

This means it will work on phones going back to the iPhone 6s, which have a single camera at the back and standard motion sensors, rather than a dual camera system found on newer models such as the iPhone 7 Plus or special depth-sensing chips in competing phones. That limits the range of images that can be displayed.

Google initially aimed to solve this problem with an AR system called Tango, which uses a special depth-sensor, but only two phone makers so far support it. With ARCore, Google changed course to work on phones without depth sensors.

But the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem presents challenges. To spread its AR system beyond the Galaxy S8 and Pixel phone, Google will have to figure out how to account for the wide variety of Android phone cameras or require phone makers to use specific parts.

Apple, however, is able to make its system work well because it knows exactly which hardware and software are on the iPhone and calibrates them tightly.

Michael Valdsgaard, a developer with the furniture chain IKEA, called the system “rock solid”, noting that it could estimate the size of virtual furniture placed in a room with 98 per cent accuracy, despite lacking special sensors.

“This is a classic example of where Apple’s ownership of the whole widget including both hardware and software is a huge advantage over device vendors dependent on Android and the broader value chain of component vendors,” said Jan Dawson, founder and chief analyst of Jackdaw Research.

Yesterday a virtual reality update to mobile game ‘Sea Hero Quest’ was unveiled that could help to accelerate research into dementia and ultimately allow early diagnosis of those suffering from the disease before they show major symptoms. 

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