This small iOS 12 feature is the birth of a whole industry

With iOS 12, Apple’s USDZ AR file support just reached your iPhone -- and it's going to kick-start the new industry.

Apple, WWDC, USDZ, AR, Augmented Reality, iOS 12, iPhone, iPad
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Imagine if you had a low-weight imaging format you could use to transmit a huge quantity of data about an object, such as an image that included height, weight, depth data.

That’s exactly what iOS 12’s clever USDZ imaging format provides, and it’s a building block for far more powerful augmented reality (AR) experiences in the future.

To succeed, AR needs standards

I spoke with Louis Jonckheere, chief product officer at Showpad, to learn his thoughts on this.

“AR is starting to become more mainstream for both consumer and enterprise applications, but still doesn’t have a file format that people agree on,” Jonckheere explained. “If a critical mass of people adopt a single file format, such as USDZ, we could see augmented reality applications become even more prevalent.”

This makes complete sense. Standards-based formats are essential when sharing and consuming information. How would we ever have built televisions without agreed-upon standards to make them work? Or telephones?

Apple at WWDC 2018 put its weight behind USDZ, a format developed with Pixar and supported by Adobe. This is now supported by iOS 12, and Apple has put command line tools in Xcode 10 that will easily convert 3D models to the format. 

Apple has made a highly interesting WWDC video that explains more here.

A USDZ file is actually a collection of assets: the .usdc file that contains all the defintions you need for the model (things like animation or material definitions) and a collection of all the necessary remaining files that might be required, such as image files or texture fills.

The path of most resistance

“There are a lot of different applications that generate 3D files, and as a result, there are lots of different formats,” Jonckheere said, warning that lack of an established file format is slowing AR adoption.

“We have the OS. Thanks to ARKit, we’re able to leverage our existing hardware with more hardware coming soon. But we can’t exchange files. USDZ has the potential to change that, so AR can skyrocket.”

That’s important to Showpad because the company builds AR applications clients can use to demonstrate their products to potential customers.

When Apple announced USDZ, it made a point of revealing that Adobe had agreed to help nurture the format. That company is developing tools that can be used in USDZ file creation, and it is thought that other big tech players will eventually join in.

Adobe has already committed to support for USDZ in its Project Aero apps and across its existing suite of creative apps.

How will the format make a difference?

We will use USDZ to share and exchange 3D files and AR experiences.

This isn’t confined to consumption, of course; we will also use these formats to build new AR experiences.

To help you understand how USDZ files work, Apple has created an AR QuickLook Gallery that you can explore using iOS 12.

“Tap any of the 3D models below on a device running iOS 12 to view the object and place it in AR. Or click a model on Mac to download the usdz file,” the company explains here.

Now that so many iOS users have installed iOS 12, this page should be of interest to many.

In the future, it seems inevitable we will see native support for 3D and AR in a browser, Jonckheere agreed. His outlook works well with that of Apple Vice President Eddy Cue, who says AR will become a mainstream product that we use every day.

Experiences become smarter

Apple is also focused on machine and vision intelligence. In combination with ARKit and the new USDZ imaging format, this also opens up fresh opportunities to create and explore interactive AR content.

“Once the camera recognizes more than just horizontal and vertical planes, the use of AR will be smarter as well,” Jonckheere said. “We’re on the verge of AR and AI and machine learning becoming more accessible, especially in B2B contexts, so we’re excited to help accelerate the adoption of these technologies.”

There are plenty of industries that may be transformed by the evolution of smart AR, particularly once it is enabled by standards-based image formats, which will accelerate the creation of immersive, widely available experiences.

“AR has the potential to transform B2B sales. With augmented reality, sellers can use collateral to show — not just tell — buyers about their products by placing and demoing them in their real-life environment. This will make way for immersive, engaging conversations where the human aspect is central to the experience,” Jonckheere said.

One more thing

Just as imaging formats such as TIFF, JPEG, GIF, and even PDF unleashed a big revolution in desktop publishing, AR imaging formats such as USDZ will enable a whole new class of industries and industrial applications of AR.

As Pixar, Adobe, and the big AR developers move to release creative solutions that include support for the format, the opportunity for a new breed of visual designer will inevitably proliferate as enterprises seek new audiences and creatives find self-expression using the newly mainstream medium.

There is one more thing that you need to kick-start an industry, and that is to make sure that the technical barriers fall over time.

This is already happening. Case in point: just take a look at Vectary's online solution that helps creatives easily make and convert USDZ files. These powerful tools for creative communication and expression are becoming democratised. And that's a market opportunity to my eyes.

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