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Consider the iPad

The right device unlocks the promise of mobile design

My relationship with the iPad, to the extent I am willing to concede a relationship with a piece of consumer electronics, has until recently been one defined mostly by fleeting hope and lasting disappointments. I’m not typically one to race out and acquire the latest tech, but something about the combination of promise and peculiarity the first ever iPad evoked grabbed my imagination in 2010. It appealed to my better nature: sleek, minimalist, something I could use to read more books, draw, watch movies on, and even get my work done with.

But the promise of “an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes” (Steve Jobs’s vision of the future from 1983) gave way to the reality, reinforced time and again, that there wasn’t much professionally I could do on the iPad that I couldn’t do better, faster, and more conveniently on a phone or laptop.

And I didn’t give up easily on the iPad either. Rationalizing that I didn’t use the 1st Gen because it was just too darn big to be convenient, I tried the Mini. Rationalizing that the Mini was too small to take notes or watch movies on, and besides that, I really should have gotten LTE, I bought a 2015 9.7” Pro.

Each, like it’s predecessor, sat mostly unused on my desk, waiting with a vague accusatory air for a call that almost never came. But I didn’t blame the iPad. If anything I felt a faint sense of guilt for not being the sort of organized, sleek, and minimalist person who could make great use of it.

The stakes change overnight

When Apple and Google announced their mobile AR SDKs in the summer of 2017, they irrevocably altered the landscape of 3D. Overnight, everything tilted away from tethered VR with its ecosystem of tens of thousands of headsets and landed squarely in the hands of the half a billion mobile users who suddenly had AR capable phones.

This summer also marked the beginning of my journey working in augmented reality and 3D prototyping. With Paul Reynolds and Josh Faust we started Torch to build tools for a chronically underserved group in 3D production: UX designers.

ARKit capable iOS devices lined up in order of screen size
 Screen size, speed, and battery life all impact the 3D design experience – choose wisely.

As the market for immersive tech now clearly favored mobile AR devices, Torch bought a range of phones and tablets for testing and demonstrating our app. Within a month, I was telling everyone and anyone who would listen what has become a common refrain for me: the iPad is, dollar for dollar, the best 3D-capable device available.

The stats say it all

Screen Size

The camera is critical to designing and using mobile augmented reality apps. Unlike typical mobile apps, AR screens must be kept clear of UI elements so that designers and users can see the world they are annotating and interacting with.

Computing has moved into the camera as the value of screen real estate has grown faster than West Coast rents. At 44.5 square inches of screen surface, the iPad Pro 9.7” is a veritable porthole into 3D when compared to keyhole-sized screens of the iPhone 8 and Xs Max (measuring at 12.5” or 15.6” respectively).

Battery Life

If you want to get work done, opt for the device with the big battery.

AR devours the battery on any device, it is true. If I am working on a project that will take a few hours, it is comforting to know I won’t have to stop every thirty minutes to plug in my device. The iPad I use has endured sessions that lasted a full day without ever interrupting a screen-recording session with a low power warning.

Landscape Mode Aspect Ratio

Another key reason to use the iPad is how well it lends itself to video in landscape mode. Try uploading a video of a design built on your iPhone X to Youtube and you’ll immediately see what I mean. Your screen is eaten up by letterboxing, those black bars on either side of the video. It’s a waste of space and attention. Landscape video is the most familiar, portable format and requires the least post-production to fit today’s viewports.

Cost

Perhaps the most forgotten reason to love the iPad is that you can get this beautiful screen and powerful ARKit computing for less than $300 (basic 9.7” Pro model), which is plenty for any but the most compute-intensive tasks. Considering that a new iPhone will set you back at least three times that amount, you’re getting a lot of power and value for your dollar.

The device is our window

AR is not about the screen, it is about seeing more of the world. Unlike virtual reality, AR experiences are made up of both digital and world layers. When we design in AR, we are affixing digital content to the real world. We are anchoring and annotating. When we interact with AR, we are encouraged to move and explore the world, not just sit slumped somewhere staring down at a screen full of UI.

It is the world itself that we need to see and explore. The device is just our window in. An iPad in landscape mode has the screen size, the battery life, and a more accessible price, which together make it the first best choice to conduct this exploration.

That’s why whenever I’m asked by a designer “What device is the best for creating AR in Torch?” I suggest, without hesitation, that they consider the iPad.

Grab your iPad and start designing in Torch AR today.

man viewing a collaborative AR scene through an iPad.