Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) subsidiary Google famously failed with its initial vision for augmented reality (AR), Google Glass. You could argue that Glass was ahead of its time, but that failure left an opening for other companies to step up to the plate. We're now in the midst of a growing trend of using smartphones as a bridge to the future of AR, including social media companies like Snap and Facebook popularizing AR-based features like live photo/video filters.
And then, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) suddenly and unexpectedly unveiled ARKit at WWDC earlier this year, a powerful set of developer tools included in iOS 11 that has the potential to create the largest AR platform overnight once iOS 11 is released later this year. In one fell swoop, Apple commandeered the AR conversation.
Well, Google has an answer to ARKit, and it's called ARCore.
The two dominant mobile platforms are embracing AR
The search giant officially unveiled ARCore today, which is built on many of the same spatial awareness technologies that Google began developing for Project Tango. Tango was a prototype smartphone that used specialized sensors to allow the device to sense its environment and create 3D maps.
ARCore will first focus on three areas to deliver AR experiences: motion tracking, environmental understanding, and light estimation. But these will be just a foundation, and more capabilities will inevitably follow as AR adoption grows among developers and consumers alike. Google also says it will create custom browsers that developers can use to make "AR-enhanced websites" that are compatible with both Android/ARCore and iOS/ARKit.
The preview of ARCore will work on millions of devices running Android 7.0 Nougat, and the search giant hopes to have 100 million devices using ARCore by the end of the preview. ARCore now works with Google's Pixel phones, as well as Samsung's Galaxy S8.
Scale matters -- a lot
Google bills ARCore as "Augmented reality at Android scale," and that last bit underscores one of the biggest challenges that Glass faced: lack of scale. Glass hardware was never compelling enough to gain meaningful adoption (especially at a $1,500 price point), which limited developer interest. Android has far greater global scale than iOS, with over 2 billion active devices currently. Apple does not disclose iOS installed base metrics, but BMO Capital Markets analyst Tim Long estimates that it's around 715 million.
ARCore is very much a response to ARKit, but the two dominant mobile platforms combined have transformative potential to bring AR technologies to masses. We're talking about a wide range of potential AR use cases, not just live photo/video filters. This is still very much the early innings in terms of third-party developer innovation, but even in the few months since ARKit was released, promising use cases are already emerging. ARCore will only accelerate that pace of innovation, which is great news for consumers.
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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Apple and FB and has the following options: long January 2018 $120 calls on FB and long January 2019 $20 puts on SNAP. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Apple, and FB. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.