Augmented reality has received a lot of hype since 2008, but experts are saying 2018 will be the year AR hype becomes actual reality.
In the past, AR received attention merely for existing – it allows users to lay visual data over their natural environment, edging consumers closer to dreams only realized in science fiction. When these dreams didn't translate to realistic use cases, AR enthusiasm waned. The technology advanced despite cooled opinions, and in 2015, Pokemon Go changed everything.
"I don't think [Pokemon Go] gets enough credit," said Matt Szymczyk, CEO for Zugara, Inc., one of the first development companies to begin working in the AR space back in 2008. "It … was the catalyst for what changed the perception for consumer use."
Pokemon Go allowed users to explore their environments and catch Pokemon, as if they were real-life Pokemon trainers. It ignited a movement that affected customers and businesses across the country. With that change in consumer opinion came a change in business opinion – brands and companies everywhere are now looking to add AR to their arsenal; and not just because it's cool technology.
"When we … design mobile experiences, it's normal for us to consider AR as part of that experience," said Aaron Shaprio, CEO of digital experience and marketing agency Huge. "It's just like you consider integrating a voice interface to it, and all the other things you can do with it, or an accelerator in your camera – AR is just part of your design kit. That was not the case even a year ago."
Some 77 percent of U.S. consumers already own a smartphone, providing brands with a platform to develop realistic AR use cases. Widespread devices that can support AR and software platforms for easy development mean that augmented reality's long-awaited take off may be initiated in 2018.
How AR is being used today
AR already has existing applications, particularly in retail and industrial industries. ARKit and ARCore, two AR platforms created by Apple and Google, allow for AR app creation, which means software developers can build AR features into existing apps or create new programs with unique AR features. Amazon's app features an AR view, for example, so users can view products in their homes before they buy them. This has become a flagship AR feature in retail.
"Let's take a physical object that doesn't exist, put it in their physical environment so the user can image what that object is like in this new place," Shapiro said.
He also said that this kind of use case extends beyond customers looking to see if furniture fits – by seeing the product in their home, they can get a better understanding.
This is especially true for the auto market. There are currently AR solutions out there where users can place a vehicle right in their driveway. This allows customers to get a feel for the vehicle by walking around it, opening doors and looking inside as if they were on a showroom floor.
AR is also emerging in the retail space as kiosk-based products. Szymczyk said Zugara has partnered with companies like Delta Airlines and Chick-fil-A to create AR kiosk experiences where customers can do things like try on a company uniform.
Besides retail, AR has already begun to expand into manufacturing and industry. Companies are adopting products like Google Glass Enterprise to improve efficiency and streamline overall processes. Wearable AR technology allows factory floor workers to control instructions without leaving each product – in the past, workers would have to walk back and forth between a desktop or lug around thick binders with directions. This type of technology can also be used for remote troubleshooting for farmers working on a piece of machinery.
In addition to Google Glass Enterprise, Toshiba recently announced its enterprise AR solution called dynaEdge AR Smartglasses.
The challenges of AR
AR is only flourishing now because of an advance in consumer technology, investment from major technology companies and wide-spread device use that's built to support AR. Despite these favorable conditions, there are still some challenges the technology is expected to face – and overcome – within the next few years.
One major challenge is the requirement to download an app to use the software, which Szymczyk says is another step for AR to take to full market adoption. In the Amazon example provided, consumers can only use that feature if they've already downloaded the app. On the business side, Szymczyk said AR can sometimes be expensive to implement.
"Augmented reality does use a lot of 3D, and 3D is not cheap. And that tends to get a little into the sticker shock area," he said.
Another challenge AR faces in 2018 is having enough data to support practical uses of the technology. Chris Nicholson, CEO of Skymind, an AI-development company, said that businesses need access to more data to create compelling AR products. Gathering and storing this data, however, can be a challenge.
"You take raw sensory data from the real world, you run it through an algorithm that extracts important information from that raw sensory data that humans can't get and then, what you do, is display it somehow in a way that humans can navigate their immediate physical environment better," Nicholson said. "AR allows them to do that."
As AR grows and continues to be adopted, it will likely stay in the mobile arena. This is the result of the ease of access for businesses as well as an absence of compelling headset technology. After Google Glass's struggles a few years ago, other companies have been vying for position in the AR headset space, but one practical solution has yet to emerge.
"I'm very bullish on [mobile-based AR] because everybody has a phone and it works today and there are great use cases for it," Shapiro said. "For the foreseeable future, until the technology [hardware] dramatically shrinks in size, which is years from now, we're not going to have wide spread adoption beyond the phone."
Beyond mobile use, AR will eventually pair directly with developments in AI and location-based services. AI can lay the groundwork for reading and interpreting data, as Nicholson described, and advances in location-based technology can create even more use cases for consumers.
"When location is more accurate, then we get into the other aspects of seeing all the virtual augmented content around you," Szymczyk said.
Both Shapiro and Nicholson agreed that improved GPS capabilities will allow for marketers and other businesses to place information around us in the real world. One application, for example, would be automated turn-by-turn directions. For businesses, advertisers will have an opportunity for placing virtual products around us.
"All of a sudden," Nicholson said, "advertisers can shape the world we see."
AR is poised to become more prevalent in 2018, and some experts think the tech will reach wide-spread market use by as early as 2020. The key transition in 2018, however, seems to be that technology has graduated from being an innovative solution and can now be applied in practical business arenas.
"People aren't using AR for the sake of AR, they're using it because they have a problem to solve," Shaprio said. "Companies have to determine, 'Am I using AR to solve a problem or is it just a gimmick?' We're … past the days where AR gets good buzz for being AR, so it's got to be a genuine use case to justify using it."