Advertising agency employees who work on augmented reality and virtual reality are worried that Apple is about to upend web-based AR and VR.
Apple appears poised to make it more difficult for sites to track iPhones’ and iPads’ motions and orientations in order to power web-based AR and VR experiences. According to a document published to Apple’s developer site, the next update to Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 12.2, will add a setting that will enable people using its mobile Safari browser to prevent sites from being able to access a device’s accelerometer and gyroscope in order to track the device’s motion and orientation.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment. Tweets from two people whose Twitter bios list them as Apple employees who work on Safari indicate that sites accessed through the mobile version of Safari will need people’s permission before they can track an iOS device’s motion and orientation.
Apple’s change will not completely prevent people from using web-based AR and VR experiences. But by requiring people to enable the setting for an AR or VR experience to work, it will introduce an extra step that could put up enough of a roadblock, especially for ads that incorporate AR, VR or 360-degree video where a person would be less incentivized to enable the setting.
“I’m sort of freaked out,” said Christopher Lepkowski, technical director at Pretty Big Monster, a digital agency that has worked on web-based AR and VR experiences for brands such as Sony Pictures.
It’s unclear whether Apple will introduce a way for sites to prompt people to enable motion and orientation tracking without people having to exit the browser, similar to how sites can request permission to track people’s location.
Apple appears to be disabling sites’ abilities to track iPhones’ and iPads’ movements and orientations to address privacy concerns brought to light last year. In October 2018, Wired reported that thousands of top sites are able to track this information without first receiving people’s permission.
Asking people to exit the browser to toggle on motion and orientation detection would not only make it less likely that people will do so to try out a web-based AR or VR experience, but it may make it less likely that brands invest in producing AR and VR experiences to be distributed online where they’re likely to reach more people than if they could only be accessed through a VR headset or required people to download a mobile app. “It will have a chilling effect on selling this stuff,” said Lepkowski.
Apple’s change will affect existing experiences that use iOS devices’ accelerometers and gyroscopes. For example, Samsung’s “Samsung Within” web-based interactive experience, developed by R/GA to promote the hardware brand’s legacy and its Galaxy Note 9 phone, uses the accelerometer to let people explore the night sky. “It’s definitely going to break things,” said Kai Tier, executive technology director at R/GA. Sites that are responsively designed to reorient themselves when people rotate a phone from portrait to landscape mode will also be affected, though it’s unclear how often people hold their phones horizontally when visiting sites and whether the change would affect videos from being viewed horizontally.
Other web-based branded experiences that would be affected by Apple’s change include AR experiences that Sony Pictures rolled out for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and DreamWorks and Universal Pictures rolled out for “First Man” as well as a VR experience that DreamWorks TV rolled out for “She-Ra.”
Still, web-based AR or VR experiences aren’t exactly all that popular right now. “I would say the main spend at the moment for AR experiences are on platforms like Snapchat, which are apps, mainly because that’s where people are already engaging, so there’s a built-in user base,” said Tier. While brands are able to incorporate AR or VR experiences into rich-media display ads to help grab people’s attention by having the ads move as a phone moves, “I don’t think at this point that’s something people are necessarily gravitating towards,” he said.
Nonetheless, Apple’s move could reduce the likelihood that brands would eventually gravitate toward those types of ads or web-based AR and VR experiences. That could more broadly impact brands’ interest in VR given that web-based VR can help brands to tackle VR’s scale dilemma.
“Web-based AR/VR experiences address the major barrier to adoption: form factor. As consumers spend more time on mobile devices, serving an immersive, interactive experience without having to put on goggles presents a significant creative opportunity,” said W. Joe DeMiero, management director of digital at Team One, in an email.
As much as Apple’s update may break existing AR and VR experiences and affect new ones, there are workarounds. For example, sites can detect when people are using mobile Safari and display a message asking them to enable the motion and orientation settings. Or they can take advantage of the fact that the desktop version of these experiences do not incorporate the accelerometer or gyroscope (because computers don’t have those sensors) and adapt them to mobile so that people can navigate by swiping their fingers on the screen instead of moving their iPhone or iPad around.
“Because we currently do have versions that don’t rely on the accelerometer, it isn’t a huge effort to change which experience the user is served. But any update does require us to do testing and then go through the whole deployment process,” said Tier.