​If you want to know where technology is heading, imagine a tape measure. You can drag it across the floor, or run it along the frame of a doorway. Except this tape measure is virtual — it exists solely on the screen of an iPhone — and it’s about as accurate as the real thing.

A handful of developers are working on apps just like this one, and you’ll be able to try them in the coming days. It may sound mundane, but that’s precisely what makes it great. It’s a sign that augmented reality — the layering of digital information onto a person’s view of the physical world — is getting both good enough and accessible enough to be useful day-to-day.

It’s also why, over the next few months you’ll see two tech giants — Apple and Google — fighting to finally propel AR into the mainstream.

On Tuesday, at an event in its new Cupertino, Calif., office, Apple explained how it plans to come out on top.

The company’s new iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus phones include a new camera and image processor that it says has been specifically calibrated for augmented reality experiences. It’s paired with new motion sensors — a gyroscope and an accelerometer — that the company says will make tracking the phone’s position and movement space even more accurate.

For jobs that don’t require millimetre precision, the result is pretty close to what a real measuring tape shows. But it’s not without its quirks. For one, the line tends to drift from its starting point the more you move around.

Laan Labs is another development shop fighting for the crown of most accurate measurement app (theirs is called AR Measure). The company is three people — Jason Laan, his brother and a childhood friend — who have been working on AR projects for seven years. Face Swap Live is perhaps their best known app, before Snapchat copied the feature. But Laan points to an earlier app called AR Soccer, developed way back in 2010, to demonstrate how far smartphone AR has come.

“It didn’t really have a good understanding of the 3D world,” Laan said. “Now with ARKit, you’re able to get a lot of information about real-world tracking just right out of the box. You don’t have to write all that stuff yourself.”

That used to be the hard part. Now, in a world that’s about to become awash in AR apps, having the tech alone won’t be enough. Developers will have to figure out what it is that people will actually want to use.

There will always be games and entertainment — like the interactive narrative from Peter Jackon’s studio that Apple demoed back in June — but Laan thinks the arrival of more practical apps is where things get interesting. Measuring apps are merely the start.

Tom Mainelli, an analyst at IDC who researches both AR and VR, believes the nascent market for AR apps will be a lot like the early days of the App Store — lots of gimmicks for the first few months, until developers figure out what works.

“I think it absolutely will cause people to want to upgrade their phones,” Mainelli says. “But I think there will be a fair amount of skepticism until people experience it.”
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