Once a fantasy among a select few gamers and programming nerds, augmented reality (or “AR” for short) is as handy as a tape measure and an awesome way to entertain yourself with your smartphone or tablet.
In an AR app or game, your device blends virtual items and objects into the real world—letting you summon a dragon in your living room, play an animated board game right on your coffee table, or see how a new couch looks in your actual living room before you buy it.
Only a few smartphones and tablets support AR right now, and best AR apps have yet to be created, but manufacturers and developers are well on their way. Here's a brief look at how it works in iOS and, if you have the right gear, a few of our favorite AR examples Apple fans can try right now.
What makes AR great?
Looking specifically at the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X, the devices' speedy (Bionic!) processors, built-in sensors, and dual-rear cameras open the door to AR apps that are much more useful and entertaining than anything we've seen before. (Yes, you can still enjoy AR with a few older iPhones.)
Previously, apps looking to dabble in augmented reality had to figure out ways to infer a lot about your device's environment using the iPhone's accelerometer, camera, GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. Accurate—but only so accurate. Now, Apple has given developers a brand-new platform for building alternate reality experiences (ARKit) that combines a lot of the data an iOS device captures in an easier-to-use, standard framework.
You'll never hunt for a tape measure again
MeasureKit may not sound as sexy and exciting as AR apps let you place dinosaurs in your backyard or shoot fireballs at flying aliens, but it serves a critical, real-life function. All you need to do to measure any kind of distance—like the size of your foot, the fatness of your cat, or that hole you just accidentally knocked in the wall—is to pull out your iPhone and point it at the object. ARKit takes care of the rest.
Buying a car isn't (as much of) a pain in the butt
Just setting foot on a car dealer’s turf is an experience that ranks up there with getting a root canal and getting hit in the groin with a football. With Edmunds' iOS app, you can visualize your dream car right in the comfort of your garage. And if you like how it looks, the app also connects to car market data, which can help you negotiate its price once you head on over to the dealer to make a purchase.
Making space a lot more approachable
One of AR's greatest promises is its ability to let us experience objects and environments we may never otherwise see. Take, for example, space. How often does one get a chance to check out a huge rocket before it blasts off into the cosmos? In NASA's Spacecraft 3D app, you can do just that—park the Mars Rover on your coffee table, if you're so inclined, and learn more about when it took off for the Red Planet, how much it weighs, and other fun facts.
If you just want to do some space exploring of your very own, there's an app for that, too.
Keep zombies out of your living room
Augmented reality games are already a huge driver of downloads and sales for the new platform, and that shouldn't come as much of a surprise. While it's fun to drop furniture in your room, measure distances, and plan open-heart surgery on your iPhone, it's a lot more exciting to use your device to annihilate undead minions in your kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom.
Enter Zombie Gunship Revenant AR, a game that needs no additional description beyond its title. Your home is now both the battlefield and the zombie bait, and you're going to need some pretty incredible virtual firepower to keep them out.