Google shows off ARCore, its answer to Apple’s ARKit

In a couple of weeks, Apple will release ARKit with iOS 11 and, overnight, hundreds of millions of Apple devices will become augmented reality-capable machines, giving developers a sort of new mobile gold rush to find their niche and capitalize on the platform Apple CEO Tim Cook has called “big and profound.”

Google has similarly been experimenting with smartphone AR since it first showed off Project Tango to the world in 2014. Three years later the company has some great technology to show off as a result, but very little in the way of actual users. Today, the company is signaling a bit of a reactionary shift in its strategy by releasing a developer preview of ARCore, a platform that will deliver AR capabilities to Android smartphones at a scale Tango was never able to reach.

ARCore is launching on the Pixel and Galaxy S8 (running 7.0 Nougat and above) to start, but by its public launch Google plans to have 100 million Android devices supported for motion-tracked AR that eschews Tango’s 3D mesh formation in favor of surface detection technologies similar to what we’ve seen from ARKit.

With this move, Google is effectively shuttering the Tango brand (read more about that here), a bold move given that it just launched its second Tango device a few weeks ago. This doesn’t mean Google is skirting away from high-end capabilities, something that’s important to note as more rumors emerge about the depth-sensing camera array on the next generation.

“We’ve architected ARCore to be able to perceive a wide variety of sensors,” Google AR/VR head Clay Bavor told TechCrunch. “We foresee, in the future, many more phones having depth-sensing capabilities and as those come into mainstream phones, that’s great, ARCore will work seamlessly with those and benefit from the additional sensing capabilities.”

For now, ARCore is focusing primarily on detecting horizontal planes, managing the device’s own motion tracking and estimating light, something that’s particularly cool to see in action, allowing digital objects to be dynamically lit based on the environment.

ARCore brings the scale to Google’s augmented reality ambitions that directly working with OEMs was never going to do. For smartphone makers using more up-to-date IMUs and cameras, the platform is less demanding than Tango in regards to hardware needs.

For now, most of the ARCore applications look fairly gimmicky, but that’s nothing too unique for the broader smartphone AR space.

Where Google likely could hold its biggest advantage in the space is when it comes to the combination of machine learning tech and AR stuff. At I/O, the company showed off Google Lens, an application that brings some of the real-time computer vision technologies we’ve seen in apps like Google Photos into an AR magic window, doing things like bringing up a restaurant menu when you point it at a storefront. Bavor’s AR/VR teams have coordinated closely with the AI groups at Google to build Lens, though it’s yet to score a release date.

The company is working on bringing AR to other areas through ARCore, including to an experimental build of Chrome, though more details will be available there later. For now the company, is racing to get ARCore on as many devices as possible and build on the Tango technologies in a way that entices developers to get creative with Google’s AR ambitions.