The AR cloud is the missing piece in the vision we all have for how AR should work. As examined in last month’s Road Map column, it’s the spatial map of the world that will let AR devices understand their surroundings. The cloud will let AR devices anchor graphics in realistic ways. No, AR doesn’t “just work” yet.
How will this cloud be built, and by whom? In reality, there won’t be one AR cloud, just like there are many platforms and data networks that comprise the web. For example, Google is building AR cloud assets and sits on a gold mine of potentially applicable Street View imagery.
But another tech giant that’s equally vocal about AR’s potential could take a similar path: Apple. Its AR cloud approach could parallel that of Google in building 3D spatial maps. In both cases, AR cloud assets could extend from the companies’ respective mapping and navigation products.
This all came to light when TechCrunch Editor Matthew Panzarino uncovered that Apple is collecting its own data for Apple Maps. The primary driver of the data collection is improving Apple Maps, and our columnist Damian Rollison has good insights on the implications of that move for local listings.
The news that Apple is collecting its own data for Apple Maps may have implications for AR, too. Could 3D spatial maps for AR be a byproduct?
“One of the special sauce bits that Apple is adding to the mix of mapping tools is a full-on point cloud that maps in 3D the world around the mapping van,” Panzarino wrote in TechCrunch. “It seems like it also could enable positioning of navigation arrows in 3D space for AR navigation.”
This could mean a few things. One outcome—given mapping data around roadways—is point cloud data to support computer vision for autonomous vehicles. But the other possibility is scene geometry for ARkit developers to build more spatially aware and interactive AR apps, like Google.
This is a similar end goal—albeit a different path—as 6D.ai. Its software equips far-flung smartphones to spatially map the world as they move through it. This is delivered via developer API and a value tradeoff: use the data in AR apps in return for collecting it (think: Waze).
The way Apple will collect 3D mapping data is conversely through vehicles (like Street View cars). It will also put hundreds of millions of iPhones to work—which it’s uniquely positioned to do—to track spatial movements at scale, but that’s more about validating roads and traffic patterns.
So, how is this different from Apple’s current approach? Apple Maps uses a patchwork of data sources like Open Street Map. Though that’s cheaper, it can bring considerable deficiencies to a core app like Maps. Having its own data—as Google mostly does—will enable a better UX.
Back to AR—for these same reasons, proprietary 3D maps and point cloud data could enable better native functionality for ARkit apps. With a toolset that’s supported by spatial maps, as mentioned, ARkit could be much more attractive to developers. And that’s half the battle in platform wars.
Also demonstrating this principle, AR pioneer Niantic announced it will likewise support the AR Cloud’s construction. This will happen through its new platform that essentially productizes the underlying architecture and code base for Pokémon Go and spins it off for AR developers.
For Apple, 3D mapping data could be a key weapon against Google as an AR platform. Platform dominance is all about a virtuous cycle, which includes attracting developers. That leads to better content and apps available on that platform (in this case iOS/ARkit), which in turn attracts users. Greater numbers of users then attract and incentivize more developers, and around we go.
Apple knows AR has more potential than what ARkit apps show so far. And it knows the AR Cloud is a key missing piece. Just like early iPhone apps, ARkit’s first batch of apps is a bit wanting. They’ll improve naturally, but Apple has a massively vested interest in assisting that evolution.
Apple also likes full stacks. Having full control of the data—for maps today, AR tomorrow—is in character. And it likes acquisitions when it comes to frontier tech. We bet it will acquire strong startup teams to accelerate the effort. Despite dampened industry excitement around AR, it could be a good time to be an AR cloud startup.