Google ARCore: Everything your business needs to know

In San Francisco last week, Google demoed an AR app named Oz. Oz is an augmented reality picture book based on characters from the Wizard of Oz. The application places characters from the Wizard of Oz into the physical world so they can be viewed via an Android smartphone or tablet. The application had previously been developed for Google Tango and had been rebuilt using ARCore. The content remained the same, but the overall user experience was completely overhauled. Prior to the launch of ARCore, Android based AR apps were restricted to a limited number of handsets including the recently launched ZenFone AR. Now for the first time, using ARCore, the app can be run on a multitude of existing Android enabled smartphones and tablets. This is huge news for Google because it gives them an AR platform that’s driven by software, something that can adequately compete with Apple’s ARKit, and something that enables Android users to experience the latest AR technology on existing devices. If you’re a brand or business interested in AR, this has huge ramifications in terms of your current and future software offering. We recenetly explored the top 3 augmented reality commercial use cases, today we’re exploring Google ARCore: Everything your business needs to know.

ARCore launch details and dates
On August 29th 2017, Google unveiled ARCore a s a limited preview to the public. As the name would suggest, ARCore is Google’s answer to Apple’s ARKit and offers a fully loaded development platform for AR app developers. The launch of ARCore is hugely significant for Google because Tango’s custom hardware requirements were constrained in terms of what could be achieved with the technology, and whilst ARCore might lack some of the horse power provided through Tango, what it does provide is AR accessibility for the mass market. All of a sudden, Google has developed a software platform capable of tipping AR into the mainstream via millions of existing Android powered devices. ARCore will initially be launched for a bunch of Android enabled devices including the Google Pixel and all of the Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphones. Both of these devices run on the Google Android 7.0 Nougat platform and also provide support for the recently launched successor to Nougat: Android Oreo. The official launch of Google ARCore is pencilled in for December 2017, when Google promises the software will be available across 100 million Android devices.

Transitioning from Tango to ARCore
Since the launch of Apple ARKit, Google has been under increasing pressure to provide an equivalent platform for Android devices. Since the developer launch of ARKit, brands and businesses have gained an insight into the capabilities of AR technology for mainstream consumption via mobile devices. Google now see ARCore as being a natural long-term successor to Tango. Clay Bevor, Google’s head of AR and VR technologies, suggested that the launch of ARCore is to reduce the number of constraints and complexities associated with enabling developers to quickly deploy new augmented reality apps and consumer experiences via mobile devices. Tango has been an excellent vehicle for Google to experiment with the capabilities of AR, to understand the use cases and push the boundaries of what AR technology is truly capable of, but ARCore will now enable Google to transcend the constraints associated with deploying AR at hardware level. Google already experimented developing AR apps for Tango, but these apps have largely failed to penetrate mainstream consumer consciousness, and whilst the mass-market appeal of these Tango based experiments was limited, they did provide Google with a plethora of insight into how ARCore might help to evolve the capabilities of AR technology with a firm view on mainstream consumer adoption. Where devices such as the Hololens and other AR HUD’s (heads up displays) possessed interesting technology, their mainstream appeal was severely constrained due to the appearance of the device, it’s cost and it’s ability to demonstrate real commercial value in the enterprise. ARCore opens up a whole new world of opportunity and enables brands to develop AR experiences capable of reaching tens, if not hundreds of millions of existing Android devices. The same can be said of Apple ARKit.

Google is now in a position where ARCore can be deployed as a mass-market AR platform. Tango enabled devices such as the ZenFone AR already feel like a thing of the past, despite the fact they’ve only been publicly available for a few weeks. It’s envisaged that Tango will gradually fade into the background as ARCore becomes a mainstream consideration for developers and brands seeking to develop highly immersive AR apps with mainstream appeal and adoption aspirations. This is not to say that Tango is finished, Google will continue to push the boundaries of what AR focused hardware is capable of (largely focusing on depth sensor tech using dual cameras), but these technologies would be deployed as part of ARCore rather than discrete hardware specific features. Google has suggested that ARCore will possess the following features that developers and brands can utilise in order to develop new cases and AR apps:

ARCore Motion Tracking
The first key feature of ARCore is motion tracking. This enables ARCore equipped Android devices to determine the devices relative location based on video capture and a series of internal sensors. This means that 3D objects can be pinned to a specific marker or location and users can walk around the objects.

ARCore Environmental Understanding
The second core feature of ARCore is environmental understanding, which uses the camera to detect flat surfaces in the user’s surrounding real-world environment.  

ARCore Light Estimation
The third key feature of ARCore is lighting estimation, which enables virtual 3D objects to cast life-like shadows and to neatly fit in with the surrounding environment in a hyper-realistic way.

Google has already used this technology to showcase some interactive functionality, whereby the Google Android mascot can be dropped into a virtual forest. When the user positions a smartphone or tablet device in front of the mascot, the mascot waves in order to demonstrate the interactive nature of the software. Similarly, using the Oz app, the lion jumps when you turn the lights of in the room. Whilst some of these features may appear at first to be gimmicky, these innovations possess vast commercial potential for brands and businesses seeking to extend their software offering into the rapidly emerging (and highly lucrative) sphere of augmented reality.

Apple ARKit v’s Google ARCore
Many of the features we’ve already covered in terms of ARCore are very similar to what’s on offer when using ARKit to develop AR apps for smartphones and tablets. It’s very difficult at this stage to accurately determine which of the platforms offers a more robust set of tools, purely because the technology is still in its earliest stages of development. However, some analysts are already suggesting that ARCore has the potential to be the leading platform when stacked up against the capabilities of ARKit. Of course, this is totally subjective and only time will tell if one platform can prove to be more successful than the other.

For each platform, there are a few obvious success criteria in terms of being able to deliver a seamless experience to users. 3D Objects should remain fixed and not jitter as the user moves around each object. Objects also need to give the appearance that they can easily recalibrate into the correct position if the camera is covered or pointed away from the scene. In essence, there are many similarities between the two platforms. Android developers possess the capability to develop AR apps without using ARCore in the same way that iOS developers can create AR experiences without using ARKit. With this in mind, it’s becoming clear that ARCore is focused on supporting specific use cases, rather than attempting to be all things to all developers.

What ARCore does really well, is detecting planes rather than human facial features or bodies, although the Oz app does a good job of in terms of character response when the camera recognises a face. What ARCore does provide is a development platform with basic AR tracking and optimisation that goes way beyond what developers could do on their own. ARCore promises to go way beyond other competing solutions in terms of the capability, level of quality and overall experience that can be delivered when producing AR apps. It remains to be seen which platform will provide the best development experience, so if you’re a brand or business seeking to develop an AR app, the right fit will depend upon your exact project requirements.

Google is focused on ensuring that ARCore provides a seamless experience for developers that makes it easy to use for beginners and experienced developers alike. Developers with vast amounts of software engineering experience can use Unreal, Unity, Java/OpenGL, similarly, developers who are new in terms of creating content for 3D can easily use ARCore to export objects from Google’s Tilt Brush VR painting app (developers can also do this using the recently launched VR modelling tool called Blocks). It’s not just mobile devices that Google is trying to conquer using AR, they’re also working on an AR powered web browser called Chromium. Google is now releasing two AR-centric builds of chromium: an iOS based browser based on ARKit and an Android based web browser using ARCore.

There are some obvious constraints with ARCore. For starters, some of the Tango tools don’t lend themselves to working effectively within ARCore. A good example of this is an AR app called Constructor. The app relies upon Tango’s proprietary infrared depth sensing camera to develop a detailed 3D mesh of the surrounding environment. The technology needs to be able to understand the surrounding environment, and as good as the tech might be, it’s only able to detect surfaces that can be used for the placement of 3D objects, rather than fully robust 3D structures. The ARCore technology also needs to be able to calculate scale based on the output of the camera feed, whilst Tango works better in that it can directly measure distance. This is important for retailers looking to develop an AR app, as product previews may look less accurate as a result. The greater the degree of accuracy, the more likely potential customers are to follow through with a purchase decision based on their experience.

Right now, it’s very difficult to ascertain which technology solution is the right fit for your next AR project. Ultimately, the right solution will depend on the project requirements and the needs of the end user. Both platforms offer the capability to delight users. With ARKit and ARCore, developers now possess the ability to develop lightweight AR experiences that users love. Many of the current apps that’s being previewed are focused on retailers, whereby pieces of furniture can easily placed into the user’s home within different contexts. If you’re a retailer interested in AR, you could use ARKit, or ARCore, of if you were aiming for the widest engagement reach possible, it might be pertinent to develop for both platforms, thus providing access to the widest possible mobile user base across iOS and Android compatible devices. But AR technology goes way beyond interior design. Although there are highly lucrative opportunities for retailers seeking to deploy AR apps and prototypes, the technology transcends interior design and can be leveraged across a wide range of industry verticals, from construction and engineering, to financial services, healthcare and utilities.

Whilst the current development climate for ARKit and ARCore looks extremely promising from a commercial ROI perspective, the future is very bright as other adjacent technologies continue to evolve at lightning pace. When you consider the current capabilities of ARKit and ARCore, as mapping technologies evolve in terms of accuracy, this will in turn create better experiences for AR app users. Google recently unveiled its new ‘visual positioning service’, which enables applications to pinpoint locations indoors within a few centimeters. Using VPS in conjunction with ARCore opens up a huge number of potential use cases for businesses to explore. In addition, as Google tries to shift users towards using visual search rather than purely text based search, this could neatly interact with AR technology. Combining ARCore with search based tools such as Google Lens will help to make AR apps for usable and practical on a day-to-day basis.

Conclusion
This opens up huge opportunities for brands and businesses. Imagine a scenario whereby users could search for instructions to setup a complicated piece of self-assembly furniture. By showing Google an image of the furniture, the visual search algorithm would be able to automatically identify the object using AR technology and provide a concise overview of the assembly instructions, rather than providing a link to a video or website that explains how to do it. By overlaying instructions visually on real-world objects, rather than using traditional text based search, this has the potential to radically alter the way consumers interact with search engines. ARCore and ARKit actually possess the ability to make the search experience more powerful, insightful and intuitive than ever before. These technologies are more than just extensions of existing features, they’re actively redefining the way companies like Google and Apple deliver their services to consumers. If you’re interested in exploring the capabilities of ARCore, we’d love to hear from you, contact us today to start the conversation.

With offices in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, Mozenix is working with blue-chip brands and businesses across the UK to help take their AR plans to the next level. If you’re still unsure about the capabilities of AR technology, or how it can be leveraged to underpin your wider strategic and commercial goals, it’s worth taking a couple of minutes to crystallise your AR thinking using our AR readiness tool.