One of the more intriguing new products teased at Apple’s WWDC developer confab back in June wasn’t an Apple product. It was Adobe’s “Project Aero,” a new platform for creating augmented-reality experiences for use on the iPhone and other devices. This week, Adobe is holding its own conference, MAX, and Aero is squarely in the spotlight. (It’s still in early preview mode, though: Adobe is testing it in a closed beta and says it will slowly let in more folks through late 2019.)
Aero isn’t an altogether new tool so much as enabling technology that lets creatives use new “AR-ready” versions of software they already know–Photoshop, as well as Adobe’s Dimension 3D package–to create digital content that can then be integrated into AR scenes and deployed to consumers. It spans desktop software (where most complex content still originates) and mobile devices (which are the only mainstream AR devices, at least until headsets such as Magic Leap become more accessible). And it includes features such as the ability to turn a multilayered Photoshop illustration into a sort of two-and-a-half-dimensional object within an AR scene–a trick that Adobe thinks will help its customers quickly start to dabble in the new technology.
Adobe’s CTO, Abhay Parasnis, showed off Aero to me by aiming an iPad at a real-world water bottle sitting on a table at the company’s San Francisco office. A digital T-rex appeared behind it, moving in proper perspective as Parasnis joggled the tablet. Even the dinosaur’s computer-generated shadows melded almost seamlessly with the real one cast by the bottle. “Computationally, this is a pretty nasty problem,” Parasnis told me. “If you’re an engineer, it’s also an exciting problem.”
Some Adobe customers already have their hands on Project Aero, including Adidas, which is using it to build an “AR-powered retail store of the future.” While Aero content will work on smartphones and tablets, Parasnis still sees some sort of headset as the ultimate AR device. Though he acknowledges that “today’s headsets are not what any of us would actually want to wear, except for a demo,” he thinks that could change within a couple of years. Even if the hardware is in flux, Adobe is ready to charge ahead with software and services: “Enough of the pieces of the puzzle are here that we can start laying the foundation,” Parasnis says.