When Apple announced its new iPhone lineup earlier this week, fans oohed and aahed predictably about the all-glass bodies, facial-recognition features, and shocking prices. But the news with the biggest long-term impact could be the phones' built-in support for augmented reality (AR).

AR uses a smartphone's camera to blend the real world with a digital one, allowing you to place imaginary objects next to actual ones, view information about people and places by pointing the camera at them, battle creatures that aren't really there, or outfit your living room with virtual furniture so you can see how it looks before you buy it.

And augmented reality won't be restricted to the the new iPhone models, even if those devices can do a better job with some apps, such as processor-intensive games.

When Apple releases iOS 11 on Sept. 19, hundreds of millions devices will have access to apps created with Apple's recently released ARKit software development kit. And that includes the older iPhone 6s and 7 models already in consumers' hands.  

The Pokémon Go craze brought augmented reality into public consciousness last summer. In addition to Apple, companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Snapchat have said they plan to hitch their future to the augmented reality bandwagon.

It could become one of the primary ways we interact with technology, says Tuong Nyugen, principal analyst for Gartner Research.

"Years ago we started out with computers, mice, and keyboards," he says. "Then we had phones, touch screens, and voice. AR is the next level, the new way people will interface with the world around them." 

Smarter Hardware

New hardware will help fuel Apple's new augmented reality mojo, including the enhanced A11 processor and sensors built into the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and iPhone X.

Using a combination of visual recognition and motion sensing, Apple says the new phones will be able to precisely detect the dimensions and location of everything in a room, then place digital objects around them.

For example, when using Pokémon Go on older phones, creatures like Charmanders and Squirtles seem to float in midair, unattached to their immediate surroundings. With AR-enhanced hardware, if you place a virtual creature on a table and it strays too close to the edge, it will fall off.

Latest Apple Product News

During the announcement of its new products on Sept. 12, Apple executives demonstrated several augmented reality apps in action. A Major League Baseball app enables fans who go to a ballpark to point their cameras at players to see real-time statistics displayed on screen.

Another augmented reality app will draw constellation maps as you point the camera at the night sky, and shift as each star comes into view. (Existing astronomy apps show the constellations, but not in the context of the real trees, clouds, and other elements of your surroundings.)

Games like The Machines insert virtual 3D worlds into real landscapes, allowing players to physically move around inside them as they do battle.

But like many advancements built into iPhones, this technology isn't unique to Apple. Two years ago Lenovo released the Phab2 Pro, the first commercially available smartphone using Google Tango, which added similar depth- and motion-sensing technology to smartphone cameras.

In August Google released a software kit that will allow developers to build AR apps for the billions of Android phones in the wild.

In fact, AR-enhanced Android apps are available now. Earlier this year the online home-goods retailer Wayfair launched an app called View to let users of Tango-enabled phones see how a virtual coffee table looks next to a couch before deciding whether to buy it. Ikea Place, a similar app for the new iPhones, will be available at the end of this month.

Lowe's In Store Navigation lets you find your way around its home-improvement stores without having to track down a sales associate. Say you're in the plumbing aisle and you need to find the lumber department: Snap a picture of your surroundings with a Google Tango phone, and the Lowe's app will guide you to where you want to go next.

The Android navigation app is currently available in two Lowe's stores in California and Washington state. The retailer plans to roll it out to 10 more stores by the end of the year.

Lowe's is also working on AR apps for iPhones. Measured by Lowe's is designed to replace your tape measure, allowing you to precisely capture the dimensions of any space or object simply by pointing your phone cam at them.

Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs, says that home improvement is a particularly promising area for augmented-reality apps. 

"When you go to a home-improvement store and leave with tiny samples and a tiny can of paint, and you paint a 2-by-2-inch square on your wall, you're trying to visualize how these things would come together," he says. Virtual reality "and AR just make it so much easier."

Photo: Vuzix

Beyond Google Glass

While phones are the way most people experience AR today, they're not the only way. The technology can also be built into other objects. For example, at Sephora stores, augmented mirrors show how a shade of eyeshadow looks on one's face before it's applied.

Shoppers in more than 20 Neiman Marcus stores across the country can try on clothes in front of the Memory Mirror, a 70-inch LCD attached to an HD camera and a computer. The mirror records 8-second videos of each outfit; shoppers can replay each video and compare outfits side by side.

Topshop, Burberry, Nordstrom, Ralph Lauren, and Rebecca Minkoff are among the other retailers experimenting with in-store AR, hoping to lure online shoppers back into their outlets.

"We're going to see a lot more 'magic mirror' experiences, where you stand in front of a screen and try on different glasses, shirts, or shoes," says Ori Inbar, founder of Super Ventures, a VC firm specializing in augmented-reality startups.

Most experts believe AR will eventually move from mirrors and phone screens into wearable objects such as eyeglasses. Google Glass was considered a disappointment when it debuted in 2013, in part due to its $1,500 price as well as its ability to surreptitiously record video in public. But it has made a strong comeback in the industrial world, where high prices, privacy, and inelegant design don't matter as much.

Employees at companies like Boeing, DHL, and Samsung are using Google Glass to display technical instructions and inventory data, leaving their hands free to do work.

Two years ago Microsoft unveiled HoloLens, its $3,000 Windows 10-powered mixed-reality headset. This fall Acer, Dell, and HP will release scaled-down $300 versions of the HoloLens targeted at gamers.

But wearable AR tech won't reach most consumers until it's small and cheap enough to "disappear" inside everyday objects, says Gartner's Nyugen.

"It needs to be built into the glasses I'm already wearing, as opposed to something weird and funky like Google Glass or Snapchat Spectacles," he says. "It can't be obvious that I'm using it."

Even that may happen sooner than you think. Last spring Microsoft unveiled prototype AR headgear that looked like a pair of Clark Kent–style glasses. Vuzix, a maker of industrial AR glasses, says it plans to ship headgear that looks like a pair of sturdy high-fashion sunglasses by early next year.  

Having expertise and information at our fingertips—without actually having to use our fingers—will make us a little bit better at everything, Inbar says.  

"If there's a pair of glasses that makes me better at fixing machines or being a surgeon, and all my peers are using it and performing 50 percent better than me, I'm going to have to use it too," he says. "How can I let my kid go to school and underperform compared to all his friends when they have smart glasses? These kinds of things are going to be the key drivers of adoption."

In the meantime, smartphone users will be getting ready for our newly augmented world by spending even more time staring at phones and battling imaginary zombies in living rooms while measuring the space for a new couch.