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Why AR Is the Best Thing That Could Have Happened to VR

Augmented reality (AR) is one of the hottest trends in tech these days.  In fact, the excitement for AR is quickly overshadowing that for virtual reality (VR). But it’s too early to write an obituary for VR just yet, and the launch of smartphone-based AR could ultimately be a huge boon for virtual worlds as well.

AR and VR were long seen as competing takes on the future of visual computing, with AR and VR headsets proposing two very different answers: VR promises immersion by shutting out the world around us, while AR incorporates that world to combine it with virtual objects and scenes.

For a while, it looked like VR had a bit of a head start. Higher-end VR headsets like HTC’s Vive and the Oculus Rift have been on sale for close to two years now, and mobile VR devices like Samsung’s Gear VR have been around for even longer.

AR headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens on the other hand still haven’t reached consumer-friendly price points and have thus been largely relegated to enterprise applications. And Magic Leap’s long-promised device still hasn’t materialized at all.

However, earlier this year, some of the biggest names in tech all came to the conclusion that you don’t need a headset, or a pair of futuristic glasses, at all for AR. Apple, Google, Facebook and Snap have instead all been investing in phone-based AR, and Apple was first out of the gate with ARKit this month.

With the introduction of iOS 11, Apple has essentially added the ability to bring AR experiences to most recently sold iPhones. Consumers can now install Ikea’s new AR app on their phone, which opens up the phone’s rear-facing camera view, and then lets them place digital replicas of the company’s furniture in their living rooms. Then, they can walk around that virtual chair, and evaluate it from all sides.

Other AR apps published on the App Store include a number of digital measuring tapes, a cute little dragon that follows you around and plays fetch with you in your home, an AR version of Eric Carle’s “Very Hungry Caterpilar,” a Giphy app to meme-ify the real world, and a number of games that play out on top of real tabletops.

San Francisco-based Penrose Studios has a bit of a different take on AR. The company, which is led by former Oculus executive Eugene Chung, is currently working on bringing its “Alumette” VR experience to the iPhone. “Alumette,” which is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Matchstick Girl,” has thus far only been available on high-end VR headsets that offer what industry insiders call “six degrees of freedom” — the ability to lean in, even walk around, and have a VR system accurately track your position and adapt the experience accordingly.

Mobile VR headsets don’t offer this kind of tracking, and some VR studios have tried to bridge the gap by also offering 360-degree videos of their experiences. Penrose never wanted to do this, said Chung in a recent interview with Variety. “It’s not nearly as immersive,” he said.

The upcoming iPhone and iPad version of “Alumette” does allow users to walk around the scene, lean in, duck and luck behind bridges and other objects — all without the need to use a high-end VR headset. That’s because it makes use of ARKit’s ability to place digital objects in a room, and then track a phone’s location in relationship to those objects.

In many ways, Penrose uses ARKit just like Ikea does. But there’s one key difference: “Alumette” fills the entire screen, and doesn’t show you any of the real world. “We are using the camera, but we are doing it for tracking,” said Chung.

That’s a very exciting approach, if only for the potential that it offers to other cinematic VR experiences. Creators of 360-degree VR content have long offered phone users a so-called magic window mode to explore their content without a headset, simply by moving the phone back and forth to explore a kind of virtual stage. With phone-based AR, viewers can now step through that window, and get up and close to the action.

This means that technology like ARKit offers VR producers an opportunity to reach much larger audiences. Hundreds of millions of consumers will soon have an AR-enabled phone in their pocket. With that, they’ll be able to explore cinematic VR, and get a taste for true immersive experiences.

Some may argue that AR will win over VR because VR has an audience problem. Only a few million early adopters have spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on a high-end VR headset. However, AR may ultimately be the key to solving this problem, and bring high-end immersive VR to the masses.

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