Today, Google announced that it has partnered with institutions like the State Darwin Museum of Moscow and London’s Natural History Museum to add new virtual exhibits to its Arts & Culture app for Android and iOS, which allows users to place augmented reality assets in real space, visible on a phone screen.
Additions include a 400:1 scale model of a prehistoric crustacean called a Cambropachycope, the Apollo 11 capsule, Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, and artworks by Frida Kahlo and other artists. The app also includes a nearly 500 million year old sea creature called an Aegirocassis, a trunkfish, a shark, and several more—most of which are also viewable as 3D models on one of Google’s websites.
Both Google and its chief competitor in the mobile space (Apple) have invested heavily in augmented reality for mobile devices. They each provide APIs for developers of AR apps for their platforms—ARCore for Android and ARKit for iOS and iPadOS.
In just the past few years, these APIs have become significantly more sophisticated, introducing features like realistic shadows, full-body motion capture, and occlusion. However, apart from furniture shopping, most applications are curiosities rather than critically useful, in part because of the limitations inherent in viewing AR content on a phone screen as opposed to experiencing it in 3D space via AR glasses or something similar.
Google’s plan for AR glasses is unclear, but it is widely known that Apple has dedicated resources to developing AR glasses of some kind for a consumer launch sometime in the next few years. The work on ARCore and ARKit leads to curiosities like this now, but it could be foundation-building for more useful applications when a new device top rolls out later.
That said, many museums around the world are still closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so bringing natural and historical artifacts into peoples’ homes in an immersive format seems like as good an application for the technology as any right now.
Google is not the only big tech company that has made moves in this space this week. Amazon revealed a new AR shopping tool that allows users to place multiple furniture items in their home at once (most popular AR shopping apps support only one item at a time), and Apple has acquired a VR company that scans real human faces and places them on avatars in virtual reality.
While virtual reality and augmented reality are distinct, developers of applications and experiences for both use many of the same technologies and concepts under the shared umbrella of XR, and work that applies to one can sometimes be applied to the other.
The new objects are visible in both the Android and iOS versions of the Android app for all users right now.