Google wants to bring augmented reality to ‘100 million’ devices this winter

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As Apple prepares a massive update to its iPhone operating system designed to thrust augmented reality into the mainstream, Google is hatching its own plan to get augmented reality apps on millions of Android phones by next year. 

On Tuesday the Mountain View, Calif.-based company released a preview of a software development kit called ARCore that will help developers create augmented reality applications that work on existing and future Android phones.

Unlike virtual reality, which completely blocks out the physical world, augmented reality overlays visuals and information onto a person’s immediate surroundings — for example, when viewed through a smartphone or tablet screen. 

Apps might include a virtual tape measure, a game that unfolds on an otherwise blank table when viewed through a smartphone’s camera, or digital drawings that magically hang fixed in the air even as the user moves their phone around a room.

The key is that, unlike Google’s past efforts, no special hardware will be required to run those apps beyond the standard camera built into most smartphones.

David Burke, the company’s vice president of Android engineering, said in a blog post that his team wants to have 100 million devices capable of running augmented reality apps built with ARCore by the end of the preview. Both Wired and The Verge reported that Google plans to officially roll the software out to users this winter.

The announcement comes nearly three months after Apple announced its own augmented reality development platform for developers, called ARKit, in June. 

When iOS 11 — the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system — is released next month with ARKit baked in, it will enable hundreds of millions of existing iPhones and iPads to run a new generation of augmented reality apps and games.

Project Tango

Google has spent the past three years working on another augmented reality platform called Project Tango

However, unlike ARCore, that platform relied on purpose-built hardware with specialized sensors designed to measure the distance of objects in the physical world — sensors that most phones and tablets lack.

Only a handful of device makers actually built smartphones and tablets with the necessary hardware, and the project failed to entice developers into creating apps that only a limited audience could use.

Then in June, at its annual developers conference, Apple announced its own augmented reality platform, ARKit, with one key difference: unlike Project Tango, Apple’s augmented reality apps could run on any recently made iPhone or iPad and beyond.

Although the specialized hardware used in Project Tango allows for more precise and, arguably, more immersive augmented reality experiences, Apple — and now Google — are betting that having a more accessible experience that runs on a wide range of current phones and tablets is a better bet for making augmented reality a commercial success.

Google says apps built with ARCore will run on devices that have Google’s 7.0 Nougat operating systems, starting with Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and Google’s own Pixel smartphone.