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Niantic: Focus on visuals makes AR look like "a gimmick that lacks utility"

CEO John Hanke posts cool response to Apple's reveal of the iPhone X's capabilities

Niantic Inc. CEO John Hanke has poured water on the AR capabilities of the iPhone X, arguing that "digital overlays" are just one aspect of augmented reality - and not even the most important.

In a blog post published in the aftermath of yesterday's Apple event, Hanke asked, "Did we just see the future today?" - a clear reference to Apple's use of "The future is here" in the iPhone X marketing. His answer was an ambiguous "yes and no," on the basis that smartphones, while an "important step" on the path to full AR, have too many "limitations" in terms of "form factor and level of development."

The reason is rooted in the what many people assume AR to be, Hanke argued. Based on Apple's presentation, the most common interpretation of AR would be a, "digital object or annotation...overlaid on the camera view on the screen." However, this definition is "really missing the point" of what Niantic and other companies are working towards.

Niantic is working towards an AR experience that goes well beyond the visual, and Niantic cited the Spike Jonze film Her as an illustrative example. "It could be a whisper in your ear telling you the path to walk or historical facts about the building in front of you," he said, mentioning the Niantic games Field Trip and Ingress for using AR techniques that don't require, "a fancy 3D AR camera view."

More importantly, Hanke is concerned that this emphasis on the digital overlays, coupled with their "awkward" implementation on smartphones, could actually harm the way AR's potential is perceived.

"Mastering digital overlays on phones today utilizes exactly the same technology stack that we will need to power the AR glasses of the future," he said. "It's an important stepping stone and that's why Niantic is committed to fully exploiting that technology on today's devices. When used correctly, it can be a powerful way to enhance your experience with the physical world.

"But apps that merely place a digital object on your kitchen table don't really qualify as 'AR' in our view. Even when used out in the world in the 'right way,' AR suffers from a challenging form factor when accessed via a phone. Holding a phone in front of you to align an AR view is, honestly, a little awkward.

"Based on experiences with apps that are mostly focused on this visual aspect of AR, some will conclude that AR is a gimmick that lacks real utility. That's a bummer, because it really is the first step to something that is going to transform the world as we know it."

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