How the Apple Measure app in iOS 12 works


Of all the new stuff in the iOS 12 beta, the one that probably best demonstrates Apple’s big push into augmented reality is the Measure app.

Announced at WWDC 2018, Measure is a default Apple app (like Voice Memos and Map) that will come to all iPhones in the fall. It makes use of ARKit, Apple toolkit for developing AR-driven apps, and uses the iPhone’s camera to compute the dimensions of objects seen on the screen. Simply hold up your iPhone to an object, tap the endpoints of the thing you want to measure, and the app will figure out the measurements.

Many AR apps need to “get their bearings” before you can start using them, and Measure is no different. Upon launch, the app will ask you to point your phone all around the environment you’re in. This can take anywhere from a few seconds to up to a minute in the beta. 

Once that’s done, you need to manually designate points to start measuring. To measure a box, for example, you’ll need to tap each corner of it to tell the app what you’re measuring, and, yes, the results can vary depending on how precise you are (though remember: this is beta software).

Similar to when you’re tracing a line with a pen and paper, shaky hands can lead to some troubling conclusions. However, with Measure, it doesn’t lock that endpoint in until you tell it too, by hitting the circular “+” button on the screen. And the first point sometimes shifts when you’re hunting for the second point (again, depending on shaky hands), so keep an eye on that.

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Manually connecting the points in Measure to find out the size of a box.

Manually connecting the points in Measure to find out the size of a box.

Image: jake krol/mashable

The app is pretty easy to get the hang of. Once you’ve created a shape, the inside area will have a white outline around it. This allows you to visualize the shape and see measurements (height and width included), plus you can even take a screencap to save for later. The app measures in inches by default (that could be based on location, though, as I was doing this in the U.S. and most of the rest of the world uses the metric system), but you can tap to see centimeters.

Besides adding dots to measure, the app can also recognize objects. By holding your iPhone up to, say, a monitor, TV, or box, it will overlay the object in yellow and allow you to lock that point in. From there, you can get the measurements of that recognized object without doing the manual work of designating a boundary.

The results of this automatic approach are less than perfect, though, as the suggested overlay is not always precise. I find that it depends on how far away from the object you are and the lighting in the room. It is best to use the automatic detection with flat objects like desks, walls, or the like. 

The results were pretty close to the actual measurements. The display on my MacBook Air measures 13.3 inches diagonally, and Measure came up with 13 inches. Not bad, though not quite dead on.

Here's how big the Measure app thinks the screen of my MacBook Air is.

Here’s how big the Measure app thinks the screen of my MacBook Air is.

Image: Jake Krol/Mashable

The MacBook measurement is demonstrative of what Apple’s trying to do with Measure. It isn’t on a quest to make the ruler obsolete. Rather, Measure is an easy way to quickly gauge the size of a space, or for when measuring tape isn’t handy and absolute precision isn’t required. It also happens to be a great way to sell customers on the benefits augmented reality, complete with trademark Apple “magic” — surely a big consideration in introducing the feature.

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Measure is still in beta, so I’m not surprised by the hit-or-miss results thus far. My hope is that as more people use the app and as Apple pushes out more updates, it will improve in its precision. I have high hopes for the app and ARKit 2.0 in general, but it needs to work out some of these glitches (like the wandering endpoints) in time for the consumer launch in the fall.

For now, Measure is a great way to showcase AR and a generally reliable way to get estimated measurements. But the ruler has no reason to shiver in fear, as its days aren’t numbered yet.

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