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Apple surprised the emerging industries of augmented reality and virtual reality with broad support for the technologies at its Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose, California. During the keynote, Apple showed off ARKit, which could transform hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads into AR devices.

Both the AR and VR demos that Apple showed were based on support from Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4. For instance, the AR demo from Wingnut AR used the Unreal Engine to superimpose a 3D science-fiction scene on a tabletop. And Apple also showed how developers at Disney’s ILM special effects studio could design a 3D-animated Star Wars scene from inside VR, using Unreal Engine 4.

“Apple’s debut of VR support for Mac and AR support for iOS are true game-changers. Whereas there are a couple million VR enthusiasts today, and early AR hardware from other companies has reached several thousand developers, Apple is bringing this high-powered technology to hundreds of millions of consumers right now,” said Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, in a blog post. “I believe this is truly the start of the mainstream VR and AR revolution that we at Epic have been striving for, and building for, over the course of many years. It’s the most definitive event marking the move to high-end technology that will power a new generation of world-class experiences transcending games and storytelling.”


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At WWDC, Apple invited Alasdair Coull, creative director of Wingnut AR, onstage to  demonstrate a new technology on an iPad Pro. Designed by director Peter Jackson and powered by Unreal Engine 4, the AR demo showcased a sci-fi battle. Viewed through an iPad, the scene showed a town in three dimensions, with people walking around in it. Then a couple of starship fighters showed up and started attacking the town.

“I”m really happy that Apple finally came forward with direct support for AR and VR technology,” said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner, in an interview. “It’s great to see their support for the technologies and it means they are more aligned with the other tech titans.”

He noted Apple’s hardware had been graphics technology, support at the hardware level, applications programming interfaces — all of those things together show broad support.

“That said, it seems like the support is limited,” Blau said.

Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, also applauded Apple’s support for AR and VR.

“Apple has a huge advantage because so many of its devices will support AR,” Bajarin said.

The imagery used realistic lighting and shadowing.

In another demo, Apple showed how developers could use the Unreal tool to insert objects into an AR environment. They could, for instance, put an animated coffee cup on a saucer onto the table. And then they put a lamp on the table and turned it on. The coffee cup cast a correct shadow, and as the lamp moved around the table, so did the shadow. That requires advanced rendering tools to make that happen.

“AR will be an enormous new accelerator of high-end engine adoption,” Sweeney said.

Apple announced support for VR on Mac, powered by Metal 2 and Valve’s SteamVR. It demonstrated VR with a HTC Vive VR headset connected to a newly-announced iMac.

To show the capabilities of this new medium on Mac, Apple invited Academy Award-winning John Knoll, chief creative officer at Disney’s ILM and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story visual effects supervisor, to unveil a real-time Star Wars scene on the volcanic planet of Mustafar (that’s where Anakin and Obi-Wan fought in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and it’s where Darth Vader choked Director Krennic in Rogue One).

The demonstration started not in a game or cinematic, but in the Unreal Editor — running live in VR mode, on an iMac. Epic’s tools programmer Lauren Ridge was backstage building the scene live as Knoll talked, using the Content Browser to add terrain, TIE Fighters, and other components of the Sequencer-based action scene. The demo culminated with the entrance of Darth Vader on the virtual set.

Mac VR support, together with general Metal 2 support and wide-ranging Mac optimizations, will ship in Unreal Engine 4.18 binary tools starting with previews in September and with the full release in early October. Valve has released a beta for SteamVR on the Mac today.

“Apple’s emphatic entry into this space marks the beginning of AR and VR as a mainstream consumer phenomenon, as a market that’s now ready to grow beyond a few million enthusiasts, to reach hundreds of millions and then billions,” Sweeney said.

Niantic, the maker of Pokémon Go, said that it will modify the popular mobile game using augmented reality features through Apple’s new ARKit for developers, which releases with iOS 11 this fall.

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