The most exciting thing about Apple’s recent announcement of iOS 11 at WWDC, to me, was ARKit. The idea that augmented reality is going to be baked into the mobile operating system means all sorts of weird stuff is on the way this fall. If, like me, you’re anxious to play around with AR, but you also don’t want to burden your iPhone with a buggy developer beta version of iOS 11, a new app called Holo is almost good enough to scratch that itch.
Holo was created by a VR / AR company called 8i, which we actually profiled back in February. It’s a simple app that lets you place “holograms” — essentially animated 3D models of people or animals — in your world using your iPhone’s screen as a viewfinder. There’s a burgeoning “store” inside the app where you can download different 3D objects, but they’re all either people or animals at the moment. There’s a skateboarder, a dancing wrestler, a few different versions of Spider-Man (sponsored by Marvel, of course), and for those of you clamoring for topical augmented reality, a fake Donald Trump.
But there are problems with Holo’s simplicity. For one, the objects can’t interact with the world you’re placing them into. The app isn’t recognizing surfaces or mapping the world, it’s just remembering generally where you placed the object so that if you turn away or move around, the hologram stays relatively put.
This is fine if you’re placing things in an open area, but it means the app isn’t aware of walls or other things in the real world that might block your view of the object. For instance, I put Spider-Man in my coffee mug, but when I pulled the phone away from the top, he stayed visible. When I placed him in my shower and walked out of the bathroom, he appeared in the hallway when I turned back in that same general direction.
Another frustrating side effect of Holo’s simplicity is that the app is sparse, almost too much so. There are buttons at the bottom for recording a video and taking a photo, but to get to the tray of holograms, you have to swipe up over that same area. When the tray of holograms — which is laid out in a row of circles like Snapchat’s lenses — is there, you swipe up to see the hologram “store” or down to bring the camera controls back. It’s just confusing to have all these controls competing against each other in the same spot.
All this said, if you use it right and work around these limitations, Holo can be fun. The struggles are almost worth it for the times where the AR looks just right, because those moments can still wow you (and others) a bit. And to be fair, 8i already built a version of Holo for Tango, Google’s AR platform, so there’s a good chance the experience will improve when ARKit goes live.
Really though, this is all just a tease for what’s to come with augmented reality on iOS 11. And while developers have already been experimenting with some wild ideas using ARKit that put 8i’s version here to shame, I do believe the Holo app is a pretty good blueprint for what most consumers’ initial experience with augmented reality will look like on iOS 11: an app with a camera-style interface that has its own “store” full of 3D models, objects, and effects.