What’s the difference between using ARAnchor to insert a node and directly insert a node?

Update: As of iOS 11.3 (aka “ARKit 1.5”), there is a difference between adding an ARAnchor to the session (and then associating SceneKit content with it through ARSCNViewDelegate callbacks) and just placing content in SceneKit space.

When you add an anchor to the session, you’re telling ARKit that a certain point in world space is relevant to your app. ARKit can then do some extra work to make sure that its world coordinate space lines up accurately with the real world, at least in the vicinity of that point.

So, if you’re trying to make virtual content appear “attached” to some real-world point of interest, like putting an object on a table or wall, you should see less “drift” due to world-tracking inaccuracy if you give that object an anchor than if you just place it in SceneKit space. And if that object moves from one static position to another, you’ll want to remove the original anchor and add one at the new position afterward.

Additionally, in iOS 11.3 you can opt in to “relocalization”, a process that helps ARKit resume a session after it gets interrupted (by a phone call, switching apps, etc). The session still works while it’s trying to figure out how to map where you were before to where you are now, which might result in the world-space positions of anchors changing once relocalization succeeds.

(On the other hand, if you’re just making space invaders that float in the air, perfectly matching world space isn’t as important, and thus you won’t really see much difference between anchor-based and non-anchor-based positioning.)

See the bit around “Use anchors to improve tracking quality around virtual objects” in Apple’s Handling 3D Interaction and UI Controls in Augmented Reality article / sample code.

The rest of this answer remains historically relevant to iOS 11.0-11.2.5 and explains some context, so I’ll leave it below…

Consider first the use of ARAnchor without SceneKit.

  • If you’re using ARSKView, you need a way to reference positions / orientations in 3D (real-world) space, because SpriteKit isn’t 3D. You need ARAnchor to keep track of positions in 3D so that they can get mapped into 2D.

  • If you’re building your own engine with Metal (or GL, for some strange reason)… that’s not a 3D scene description API — it’s a GPU programming API — so it doesn’t really have a notion of world space. You can use ARAnchor as a bridge between ARKit’s notion of world space and whatever you build.

So in some cases you need ARAnchor because that’s the only sensible way to refer to 3D positions. (And of course, if you’re using plane detection, you need ARPlaneAnchor because ARKit will actually move those relative to scene space as it refined its estimates of where planes are.)

With ARSCNView, SceneKit already has a 3D world coordinate space, and ARKit does all the work of making that space match up to the real-world space ARKit maps out. So, given a float4x4 transform that describes a position (and orientation, etc) in world space, you can either:

  • Create an ARAnchor, add it to the session, and respond to ARSCNViewDelegate callback to provide SceneKit content for each anchor, which ARKit will add to and position in the scene for you.
  • Create an SCNNode, set its simdTransform, and add it as a child of the scene’s rootNode.

As long as you have a running ARSession, there’s no difference between the two approaches — they’re equivalent ways to say the same thing. So if you like doing things the SceneKit way, there’s nothing wrong with that. (You can even use SCNVector3 and SCNMatrix4 instead of SIMD types if you want, but you’ll have to convert back and forth if you’re also getting SIMD types from ARKit APIs.)

The one time these approaches differ is when the session is reset. If world tracking fails, you resume an interrupted session, and/or
you start a session over again, “world space” may no longer line up with the real world in the same way it did when you placed content in the scene.

In this case, you can have ARKit remove anchors from the session — see the run(_:options:) method and ARSession.RunOptions. (Yes, all of them, because at this point you can’t trust any of them to be valid anymore.) If you placed content in the scene using anchors and delegate callbacks, ARKit will nuke all the content. (You get delegate callbacks that it’s being removed.) If you placed content with SceneKit API, it stays in the scene (but most likely in the wrong place).

So, which to use sort of depends on how you want to handle session failures and interruptions (and outside of that there’s no real difference).

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