Apple Inc. is gearing up for a big push to popularize augmented reality, launching new hardware and software in the coming weeks that make it easier for users to shop for virtual couches, slay digital zombies and drop artificial videos in their living rooms.
A new high-end iPhone is expected to be unveiled Sept. 12 with a dual-lens camera system and 3-D sensors that improve depth-sensing and enhance augmented-reality experiences. Apple's new operating system, iOS 11, which becomes available this fall, will offer new augmented-reality capabilities first previewed in June. Meanwhile, apps imposing virtual images on real scenes in a smartphone screen are expected to flood the app store from companies ranging from IKEA to AMC Networks Inc., in hopes of benefiting from Apple's promotion of augmented reality.
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Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has touted augmented reality, telling analysts last month: "This is one of those huge things that we'll look back at and marvel on the start of it."
Katy Huberty, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said Apple sees the addition of augmented reality -- which imposes virtual images over real scenes on a smartphone screen or other device -- as potentially as transformational for its business as the debut of the App Store in 2008.
If the technology takes off, she said, it could help reinvigorate flagging iPhone sales. It also could ease questions about Apple's ability to innovate.
The hope among some augmented-reality enthusiasts is that Apple will popularize the technology, triggering consumer trial and adoption. Some proponents, though, are skeptical about the technology's immediate potential.
Matt Miesnieks, a partner at Super Ventures, an investment firm that targets augmented-reality startups, expects most early apps in the field will become seldom-used novelties. He said features enabled by Apple's augmented-reality development platform, ARKit, are limited and it is awkward for people to hold handsets in front of their faces to commingle real and digital worlds.
"People don't really understand the constraints of smartphone AR, and they have wildly inflated expectations at the moment of what's realistic, " Mr. Miesnieks said. He doesn't foresee apps gaining traction until late next year, when he expects an updated ARKit with more capabilities.
Augmented reality shot to prominence last year following the release of "Pokémon Go," a game in which players scoured the real world, with the help of location-tracking technology, to find digital monsters superimposed through the smartphone screen. But public enthusiasm soon faded.
Still, tech companies including Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Facebook Inc., and Snap Inc. are vying with Apple to drive augmented reality forward. Google recently announced its own augmented-reality software system, ARCore, to compete with Apple's system.
ARKit, which Apple released in June, eliminates major obstacles for developing augmented-reality apps, offering software capable of tasks like tracking a user's position and estimating the light available in a room. It also turned an estimated 500 million iPhone owners into potential customers.
ARKit was so easy to use that Touch Press Inc. was able to build an augmented-reality world based on the children's book "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" in about six weeks, a quick turnaround that surprised the company because previous augmented reality projects performed inconsistently, said Chief Executive Barry O'Neill. It used ARKit to identify a horizontal plane, such as a desk, and drop a virtual caterpillar on top with trees to climb and strawberries to eat. Children can lead the caterpillar across the room by walking with an iPhone.
"You know the way Apple makes things easy? They've done it for engineers, " said Mr. O'Neill. "It just works."
Roughly 40 million people in the U.S. are expected to use augmented reality at least once a month this year, up 30% from last year, according to research firm eMarketer. It estimates the total will rise to 54 million in 2019.
ARKit has raised hopes that retailers can use augmented reality to help shoppers visualize how their products would be used. Swedish furniture retailer IKEA is launching an app with 2,000 items, including sofas, armchairs and coffee tables, that people virtually place in a room and view from different angles. The images are realistic enough that users can look beneath a virtual Friheten sofa to see how high it sits off the floor.
"We're closing the imagination gap" for shoppers, said Michael Valdsgaard, a senior IKEA executive.
ARKit also promises to expand augmented-reality gaming beyond "Pokémon Go." AMC is developing a "Walking Dead" app that imposes virtual zombies on the real world. Other developers, including the Food Network and Giphy Inc., are launching social apps for sharing photos of virtual cupcakes or GIFs of "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" character Carlton Banks dancing in a room.
Apple's embrace of the technology has stoked anticipation it will introduce glasses in the future that bring augmented reality from people's hands to their faces. Mr. Miesnieks, the partner at Super Ventures, said Apple is as many as three years away from launching augmented-reality glasses because the sensors and algorithms behind ARKit couldn't currently fit into traditional eye wear.
Apple declined to comment.
Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 08, 2017 09:29 ET (13:29 GMT)