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The Biggest New Thing Apple Is About to Release Isn’t Hardware at All

After suffering a number of devastating leaks, Apple has few surprises left for this week’s iPhone event. The company is widely expected to introduce a new $1,000 iPhone X, as well as two new iPhone 8 models and a souped-up Apple TV. However, the biggest thing that Apple is about to release isn’t a hardware product at all. It’s ARKit, the company’s entrance into the augmented reality (AR) space.

First announced at the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in June, ARKit enables developers to build their own augmented reality apps for iPhones and iPads. With it, developers will be able to overlay digital animations and objects over a camera view of the real world, something that was first popularized a year ago by Pokemon Go.

However, there is a key difference between Pokemon Go and the apps ARKit makes possible: ARKit uses a technology called simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM, to recognize objects and their position relative to the camera.

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This makes it possible, for example, to not just place a Pokemon-like character on a table, but to actually have it fall off the edge if it would stray too far. It can also be used to measure objects, or scale things relative to their environment, and then keep them in scale as the phone user walks closer. In other words: Digital objects behave much more like real things, which is key to making AR believable.

Apple first made ARKit available to developers when it released a preview version of iOS 11 in June, and a number of people have been testing the limits of the technology, in turn posting crazy videos on Twitter, ever since.

But we are only going to see the real impact of ARKit when real apps, and not just demos, are going to be made available to consumers. Apple is expected to highlight a number of such apps at its press event Tuesday, and consumers won’t even have to buy one of the iPhones announced at the event to try them.

ARKit will also run on any iPhone 6s, iPhone 7 and iPhone SE, as well as the iPad Pro and the 2017 iPad, as soon as these devices receive the new version of iOS, which could be Tuesday as well. ARKit-enabled apps will run on as many as 500 million devices by the end of the year, by some estimates.

That’s a big audience, and a big leap for Apple which has seen massive competition from other companies in next-generation computing technologies like virtual and augmented reality — technologies that nowadays often require PCs or phones to work, but could eventually lead to the next big category-defining device, be it standalone VR headsets or a pair of AR glasses.

For a long time, Apple didn’t have any VR initiatives at all. The company only recently added support for VR headsets to its OS X desktop operating system, but doesn’t make any such headset itself. Apple also stood by as Google, Microsoft and others began to explore AR hardware.

Granted, there is also intense competition for smartphone-based AR; Google recently announced its own take on mobile AR for Android, and Facebook is set to introduce AR tools to developers as well. But with ARKit, Apple has a chance to effectively leapfrog the competition by adding AR support to more phones faster than anyone else.

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