The potential of mobile augmented reality is clear. Last summer Pokemon Go gave a glimpse of just how big this craze could be, as thousands of excited humans converged on parks, bus stops and other locations around the world to chase virtual monsters through the lens of their smartphones.
Apple was also watching. And this summer the company signaled its own conviction in the technology by announcing ARKit: a developer toolkit to support iOS developers to build augmented reality apps. CEO Tim Cook said iOS will become the world’s biggest augmented reality platform once iOS 11 hits consumers’ devices in fall — underlining Cupertino’s expectation that big things are coming down the mobile AR pipe.
Y Combinator-backed, MIT spin-out Escher Reality’s belief in the social power of mobile AR predates both these trigger points. It’s building a cross-platform toolkit and custom backend for mobile AR developers, aiming to lower the barrier to entry to building “compelling experiences”, as the co-founders put it.
“Keep in mind this was before Pokemon Go,” says CEO Ross Finman, discussing how he and CTO Diana Hu founded the company about a year and a half ago, initially as a bit of a side project— before going all in full time last November. “Everyone thought we were crazy at that time, and now this summer it’s the summer for mobile augmented reality… ARKit has been the best thing ever for us.“
But if Apple has ARKit, and you can bet Google will be coming out with an Android equivalent in the not-too-distant future, where exactly does Escher Reality come in?
“Think of us more as the backend for augmented reality,” says Finman. “What we offer is the cross-platform, multiuser and persistent experiences — so those are three things that Apple and ARKit doesn’t do. So if you want to do any type of shared AR experience you need to connect the two different devices together — so then that’s what we offer… There’s a lot of computer vision problems associated with that.”
“Think about the problem of what ARKit doesn’t provide you,” adds Hu. “If you’ve seen a lot of the current demos outside, they’re okay-ish, you can see 3D models there, but when you start thinking longer term what does it take to create compelling AR experiences? And part of that is a lot of the tooling and a lot of the SDK are not there to provide that functionality. Because as game developers or app developers they don’t want to think about all that low level stuff and there’s a lot of really complex techs going on that we have built.
“If you think about in the future, as AR becomes a bigger movement, as the next computing platform, it will need a backend to support a lot of the networking, it will need a lot of the tools that we’re building — in order to build compelling AR experiences.”
“We will be offering Android support for now, but then we imagine Google will probably come out with something like that in the future,” adds Finman, couching that part of the business as the free bit in freemium — and one they’re therefore more than happy to hand off to Google when the time comes.
The team has put together a demo to illustrate the sorts of mobile AR gaming experiences they’re aiming to support— in which two people play the same mobile AR game, each using their own device as a paddle…