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This Startup Wants to Bring Augmented Reality to the iPhone Before Apple Does

Apple may have up to 1000 engineers working on augmented reality, if estimates from UBS analyst Steven Milunovich are correct. San Francisco-based computer vision startup Occipital is comparably scrappy. But the company nonetheless believes it can beat Apple to market, and is now gearing up to sell an augmented reality (AR) headset for Apple’s iPhone next month.

Bridge, as the headset is being called combines recent-generation iPhones with a Gear VR-like headset and a depth sensor capable of scanning rooms and incorporating real-world obstacles into mixed-reality applications.

The headset makes use of the iPhone’s camera for a live video feed of the environment, which is enhanced through the addition of a wide-angle lens. In the headset, users then get to see that live camera image overlayed with virtual objects.

During a demo at the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco this week, Occipital showed off an app that made it possible to play fetch with a small robot dog, complete with balls bouncing off real-world walls and tables. Users could also place virtual furniture in the room, and rearrange it to see how a chair would look like at a certain spot.

Occipital has been working on a variety of computer vision applications since 2008, and introduced its own 3D depth sensor in 2013. In December, it first introduced Bridge to some 600 developers, giving them a way to build augmented reality apps.

In April, the company will begin to sell the headset to consumers over its website, and its VP of marketing Adam Rodnitzky told Variety this week that it eventually wants to make it available through retail stores as well.

There are reasons to doubt that the Bridge headset will become a break-through success. For one, there is the premium price tag: Consumers will have to pay $399 for the headset, which is a steep order for an unproven technology, especially when other mobile VR headsets are a lot cheaper.

The bigger issue is that at the end of the day, Occipital still only is a 40-person startup. Not only is this dwarfed by Apple’s rumored AR engineering army. Developers are also much more likely to work for efforts like Google’s Tango AR platform or Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality initiative, simply because these big companies have a better track record catering to millions of consumers.

These issues are not lost to Occipital. That;s why the company is already working on a new generation of its sensors, to be directly integrated into VR or AR headsets. Rodnitzky said that Occipital’s tech may never get picked up by the likes of Apple, but he seemed optimistic that other major phone makers could be willing to license its technology in order to stay competitive — and maybe even beat Apple to the punch once more.

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