Apple’s new iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X smartphones are intended to bring augmented reality technology to the masses.
The consumer technology giant unveiled three new smartphones on Tuesday that executives bragged would be the best way for people to interact with augmented reality apps. Apple highlighted its AR efforts as during a splashy event in the Steve Jobs Theater at the new Apple Park headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.
With augmented reality, people can see digital images overlaid onto the physical world using their smartphones and cameras. The technology is closely related to virtual reality, in which people wear headsets like Facebook’s (FB) Oculus Rift that immerse them into completely digital environments.
Apple’s (AAPL) head marketer Phil Schiller described several technologies intended to make the new iPhones better suited than competing smartphones at displaying AR graphics. The iPhones contain new gyroscopes and accelerometers that help orient digital imagery onto the physical world in a more realistic manner than before.
Schiller also said that the new phones’ cameras were “calibrated for AR,” which also presumably helps with overlaying digital graphics in the real world. The smartphones’ new mobile computing A11 chips were also designed to improve the performance of AR apps, he explained.
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Apple executives on stage showed off its new phones displaying AR apps, including one built by Major League Baseball that lets spectators attending a live game see player statistics when they hover their phones over a particular athlete.
Another AR app showed how a person could use the new iPhones to see a Tyrannosaurs Rex growl and interact with basketball players on a real-life court.
And in another live-demo, Shanghai-based video game startup Directive Games showed an AR game in which the sound effects generated by digital imagery get louder or quieter depending on where people move in the physical world, underscoring the importance of precise audio in augmented reality.
The iPhone X also uses AR technology to track someone’s face for both security and for fun, Apple’s software engineering chief Craig Federighi explained. For example, the new iPhone X comes with a feature that lets users unlock it using facial recognition technology, replacing the use of a fingerprint reader. That facial recognition technology depends, in part, on augmented reality to recognize someone’s face.
Additionally, the iPhone X also comes with the ability to create emoji that mimic users’ facial expressions—both serious and silly—and send them to friends. That capability also relies on aspects of AR technology that can accurately merge both the physical world with digital graphics.
Apple executives explained that underpinning all of the company’s AR technology is its custom software development toolkit, ARKit, which Apple debuted in June as a way to help developers build AR apps for iOS devices. Like other big companies including Facebook and Google (GOOG), Apple sees AR as a potential new way for people to interact with computers.
Each of these companies have created custom software tool kits that they intend to be the preferred way for developers to create AR apps. However, uptake is slow, highlighted by the fact that no blockbusters have recently debuted besides the popular Pokémon Go mobile game released last summer.