AR is alive and well on the iPhone, and Apple’s augmented reality is getting better fast

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Apple will reportedly unveil an augmented- or mixed-reality headset. Apple hasn’t discussed any headgear yet. But augmented reality is alive and well on the iPhone — and it’s only getting better. Apple’s depth-sensing lidar sensor (available on the iPhone 12 Pro and latest iPads), with its advanced 3D-scanning possibilities, feels like the backbone of the Apple headsets of the future in many ways.

People Detection recognizes people and measures distance, using AR tech. 

© Scott Stein/CNET

People Detection recognizes people and measures distance, using AR tech. 

Apple began its AR journey in 2017, making a splash with virtual Ikea furniture and realistic-looking outdoor Pokemon Go battles. This year, I’ve been standing on street corners scanning fire hydrants with Apple’s new iPhone 12 Pro. I’ve mapped my house’s interior. I’ve navigated lava rivers on my floors.

Facebook, Microsoft and Magic Leap are already exploring goggles and glasses that aim to blend the virtual and real, with more headsets coming in the future using Qualcomm chips. But Apple’s AR mission right now, according to Mike Rockwell, Apple’s head of AR, and Allessandra McGinnis, its senior product manager for AR, is to make everything work better on the device you already have in your pocket. Layering AR with real-world locations and popping up experiences automatically, while making creative tools and developing assistive tech based on AR’s capabilities, could, in the long run, become the biggest killer apps.

“AR has enormous potential to be helpful to folks in their lives across devices that exist today, and devices that may exist tomorrow, but we’ve got to make sure that it is successful,” Rockwell says. “For us, the best way to do that is to enable our device ecosystem, so that it is a healthy and profitable place for people to invest their time and effort.”

Rockwell and McGinnis also talked with me about what’s different now compared to three years ago, and why phones matter so much for what comes next.

a close up of a camera: Patrick Holland/CNET

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Patrick Holland/CNET

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