If Google knows one thing, it’s how to get a lot of people to use its technology.
The search giant has seven products with more than a billion users, including Google Maps, Gmail and its iconic search engine.
To win over another billion, Google wants to bring something else to the masses: augmented reality, or AR. On Tuesday, the company announced ARCore, a set of tools that lets software developers build AR experiences for Android, Google’s mobile operating system.
Augmented reality, for the uninitiated, is when digital images are overlaid on top of what you’d normally see through a camera lens. Think Pokemon Go monsters circling around you or Snapchat filters that animate flower crowns over your head. If Google gets its way, more of that kind of stuff will be coming to “millions” of phones running Android, the world’s most popular mobile software.
The move follows a similar one by Apple, which released a set of tools called ARKit for iPhone developers in June. For now, Google is just releasing a preview of ARCore. It’s only available on Google’s flagship Pixel phone (running Oreo, the newest version of Android) and Samsung’s Galaxy S8 phones (running Nougat, last year’s version of the operating system). Google is also working with other phone makers, including Huawei, LG and Asus, to bring its tool to more devices.
“Our goal for this is to take AR mainstream,” said Clay Bavor, Google’s head of virtual reality and AR. “We have believed for years that mobile-based AR was going to be a thing.”
ARCore will probably be in preview mode until the winter, Bavor said during an interview at one of Google’s San Francisco offices. After that, it will be available more widely — Google wants the software supported by 100 million phones.
AR is one of Silicon Valley’s biggest obsessions. Aside from Apple, Facebook has also made a big push, announcing in April its own platform for developers to build augmented reality apps and games for the social network. Snapchat pioneered much of how consumers use AR right now, with its filters and lenses.
With Google’s new tools, developers will be able to create graphics that look like they are sitting on tables and other surfaces. The software will also react to the lighting in your room, so the graphics can be lit realistically. The search giant also said it’s created an experimental browser so developers can build AR for the web.
What about Tango?
Google’s been investing in AR since 2013, starting with its Tango initiative. That project was focused on developing hardware and sensors for AR along with the software. To date, there are two phones with Tango-branded technology built in, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, starting at $500 (roughly £400 or AU$670), and the Asus Zenfone AR, starting at $600 (roughly £455 or AU$755). Both are on sale now.
But with Google’s focus now shifting to ARCore, what happens to Tango? I asked Bavor if the release of ARCore means a shuttering of the Tango brand. “That’s too strong a statement,” he said.
Even so, it sounds grim for the brand. “Our developer-facing brand, consumer awareness — I think we will shift very much towards ARCore,” he said. But he added Google is still interested in advancing AR hardware.
Augmented reality holds a lot of promise. With AR, you might be able to tell if your kids have fevers just by looking at them. You might never need to buy a TV again if you can just project a big screen over your eyes.
And you’ll never experience the awkwardness of forgetting someone’s name, because it could appear right over their head after the facial recognition software in your device pulls it up from your contacts list.
Google and other companies hope that future starts soon. To demo ARCore, Bavor’s team built an app that teaches you how to make espresso, with AR directions that appear on the espresso machine.
“It’ll tell you, ‘Hey, don’t touch that,” he said. “You’ll burn yourself.”
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