iOS 12 will come with Memoji, or customizable Animojis that animate along with the user's face

Apple’s interest in augmented reality began in earnest last year, with the arrival of ARKit software development tools. Now, at its Worldwide Developer Conference keynote on Monday, the company shed light on how it’s making those experiences more robust.

“AR is transformational technology. Bringing experiences into the real world, it enables all kinds of new experiences, changing the way we have fun, and the way we work,” said Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering. “And in iOS 12, we wanted to make an easy way to experience AR across the system.”

Apple unveiled USDZ, a new AR file format that can make AR development easier in a WYSIWYG, or “what you see is what you get,” environment. App makers can drop in 3-D visuals and see what it looks like, rather than staring at straight code.

Adobe is among the first to integrate USDZ support. “With Creative Cloud, designers and developers will now be able to use familiar apps — apps that they know and love, like Photoshop or Dimension — to create amazing AR content and bring it easily via USDZ,” said Abhay Parasnis, Adobe executive vice president and chief technology officer, adding that Creative Cloud will offer a new iOS application that lets people design AR experiences quickly.

“So, you will be able to bring in images, videos, text, any object from Creative Cloud directly into a native AR environment,” he said, adding that the WYSIWYG editing with Creative Cloud and iOS will be a first.

Apple’s own interest in AR spans fun and entertainment to more pragmatic scenarios. On the one hand, it unveiled Memoji, or custom Animoji that can be tweaked to look like users, with animations that match them as they speak. On the other, it upgraded iOS developers’ ability to deliver more realistic AR with ARKit 2.0. The new version gives app makers better face tracking, more realistic rendering, 3-D object detection, persistent experiences and shared experiences.

The demo showcased two people playing a game with virtual blocks on a table top, each using their own iPads.

Apple AR ARKit 2.0

Apple now allows for shared AR experiences, giving gameplay and collaboration a boost.  Courtesy image

Apart from games, it’s easy to see how the sharing scenario could be useful for design or other collaborations, particularly as it ties into measurements. The company’s new app uses the camera to take more precise readings of spatial lengths and widths, and together with AR, it made for impressively realistic looking virtual assets that can drop into the real world at the proper size and scale — a natural boon for home furnishings, e-commerce or real estate uses.

In other announcements, the company also revealed custom-created Siri commands, group FaceTime calls and more controls so users can manage their own (or their kids’) smartphone habits, among other things. Siri also got smarter, thanks to machine learning. She’ll be able to make better suggestions for daily tasks based on what users typically do at certain points in the day or where they are, and the Watch will be able to tie into that.

Speaking of which, Apple announced that sales of its Watch grew 60 percent in 2017. It hopes to keep the interest going with a new Walkie Talkie function for real-time voice communication, shared fitness challenges and other features, including streamlining that ditches the “Hey, Siri” trigger and cues the voice assistant by just raising the arm.

On the surface, the changes look fairly incremental, though new details could emerge as developers dig into the tools. But already, they point to the company’s priorities. Despite Federighi’s emphatic denial that Apple wants to combine its mobile and desktop software, the announcements appear to help bridge some of the gap between Apple platforms. Over time, developers will be able to port over their iOS apps to run on Mac desktops. Siri on the wrist looks poised to become even more intelligent. And increasingly, more of its apps will be driven by better and more elegant AR features.

If Apple is working on AR glasses, as the rumors suggest, it’s hard to imagine the company doing more to set the stage. And it looks like retailers, brands and other third-party developers will have plenty of new tools to get ready in the meantime.