New iPhones, fancy photography tricks, and a demo failure in front of millions — there was no shortage of things to talk about after Apple’s grand event. Less highlighted, however, was the company’s strong push for augmented reality (AR) games on mobile. There’s actually a good reason for that.
As cool as the demos were during the keynote, AR gaming isn’t a new concept. Unlike virtual reality (VR) which normally requires a headset strapped to your face and powerful hardware, AR simply adds graphics to the world around you using a device containing a camera and screen, like a smartphone or tablet.
Apple understands what they’re getting into, but like most of the features that come a little later to iPhones — refined virtual assistant and widget integration come to mind — the company is a master of simplifying a preexisting execution, marketing it like its the next big thing, and ensuring there are no compatibility issues with newer models.
A short refresher
To date, the most successful attempt at bringing AR games to the mainstream market has been Pokémon Go. Smaller now in user base but widely played nonetheless, the Pokémon-powered AR game is available for both iOS and Android, and can be enjoyed without spending a cent. That was the winning formula for developer Niantic, but their success has been difficult to replicate.
Although such games have been around for a while already (remember Ingress?), taking AR gaming to the next level is more difficult than it looks. Lenovo and ASUS have been the most prominent pushers of the platform using Google’s Tango AR system, which includes the software, hardware, and exclusive app store to make the advanced experience possible.
Lenovo introduced the first Tango-enabled smartphone with the Phab 2 Pro. Ring a bell? As you can imagine, the product didn’t fly. Being the pioneering Tango gadget wasn’t enough for consumers to ignore the relatively high price tag for an unproven platform. Sure, Tango was already fun to play with despite being in its infancy stage, but beyond that, it felt like a novelty item.
ASUS took the idea a step further with the ZenFone AR. Now with a more powerful smartphone to work with, Tango finally took off with more recognizable games and a more refined selection of utility apps. But again, the concept felt wasted on an overpriced phone with a minuscule number of owners.
Playing Apple’s game
So, how does Apple’s strategy differ from the rest while also being rather late to the game? Simple: by making AR games available to millions of existing iPhones through the latest version of iOS.
According to Apple, downloading iOS 11 on a recent iPhone (iPhone 6s and SE or later) or iPad (all of the Pro series and the 2017 model) gives you access to everything designed by ARKit, which is what app developers have been using to create AR games for iPhones. That’s right: You don’t need the US$ 1,000 iPhone X or marginally updated iPhone 8 to experience their platform.
This is a smart move by Apple. It’s a model similar to what Niantic has done with Ingress and Pokémon Go and it goes back to the formula I mentioned earlier — remove the strict hardware requirements, don’t scare away consumers with complicated terms like Tango-compatible triple-camera setup, and make it available for devices up to two years old.
The only shortcoming is incompatibility with the three-year-old iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, as well as any of the iPad mini models, all of which are still widely used around the world.
Looking to the future
Whether or not these AR games become successful in terms of number of downloads or critical response to the quality of games, Apple already won the AR war against Google. The sheer fact that there are six times as many iOS devices with advanced mobile AR and greater accessibility compared to that of Tango is a telling sign.
Of course, like 3D movies and recent attempts at VR gaming, AR could be another passing fad. At least it’s going to be a lot cheaper to enjoy from the get-go and require less of a financial and emotional investment.