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The Future of AR

By January 17, 2022 No Comments

Since 900lbs’ first AR project for Vespa in 2014, we have experimented with how brands can utilize this technology to create memorable experiences for consumer and enterprise-facing brands alike.

Determining what is real and what is just hype can often be difficult, so we sat down with Steven Billingslea, our Sr. Director of Interactive Development, to distinguish the facts from fiction around this exciting technology.

Q. WHERE IS AR TODAY, AND WHERE IS IT GOING?

When the initial virtual reality head mounted displays  came out, some of our industry peers, along with the media, thought that Virtual Reality was the next big thing. However, in our opinion, it has become clear that Augmented Reality is the true next frontier. Augmented Reality technology creates immersive worlds that interact with the user and their real physical surroundings.

This real world layer, as opposed to the user interacting with a purely digital environment like you see in Virtual Reality experiences, is a key differentiator.

Increase in Scalability and Accessibility

In the future, as accessibility to augmented reality experiences increases across devices, leveraging multi-platform AR to enable one singular app to work on several different platforms – will evolve the technology for many users. WebAR in particular could speed the growth of the technology by allowing users to access augmented reality experiences in their device’s browser, removing the necessity to download an application.

Increase in Adoption

As mobile AR technology and delivery methods continue to evolve, we can expect to see an increase in the user base for these experiences. Head-mounted displays will also extend the reach of AR, providing more than just entertainment and leading to growth in training and support for various industries.

Killer Hardware

One key step in this broad consumer adoption will be consumer-based AR glasses, such as the long-rumored Apple AR Glasses, and supporting software platforms that are currently in development. Once these pieces of hardware hit the consumer market at a high polish level, with a robust app ecosystem, the technology’s popularity is sure to skyrocket.

Q: WHAT OPTIONS/DEPLOYMENT METHODS ARE AVAILABLE TODAY, AND WHAT ARE THEIR LIMITATIONS?

App-Based Experiences

Stand-alone apps are the most popular development platform for AR experiences today. These experiences are popular because they are accessible from a wide range of devices, bringing the AR environment to a diverse user base. Because these experiences are downloaded onto individual devices, these apps tend to enable more complex interactions because they are able to harness the full power of each device. Whereas, browser-based AR is limited to the browser interface limitations.
(See our Web AR notes further down).

Native OS feature integration can also greatly reduce friction (ex: biometric ID, notifications, accessibility settings, etc..) and increase usability.

In terms of deployment, this means launching on the iOS App Store or Android compatible App Stores such as Google Play Store. Some enterprise or private “beta release” apps need to be launched in a less public channel, so there are options there as well using developer features and device management platforms.

The downside to app-based experiences is that users are tasked with downloading an external app, which some users (and brands) tend to shy away from, simply because it’s an added step in the engagement process.. This is especially true in a B2B setting, where time is money, and customers and end-users do not wait to enter an experience.

Head-Mounted Displays

HMDs are like VR goggles except with cameras on the front that “pass through” visuals to you. These are not the same as“Smart Glasses” because HMDs often require external hardware to fully utilize their potential.

Utilizing head-mounted displays to create augmented reality environments can provide a more realistic experience for users because they aren’t having to constantly hold a phone up to explore the AR world and the field of view is much larger and crisper – closer to how our eyes naturally see. These types of experiences are great for corporate use (immersive training, events, etc.) because of the realistic, hands-free environment.

Head-mounted displays do, however, have their drawbacks. These headsets can be cost prohibitive for some audiences, and often require expensive, external hardware to run them. This barrier to entry can restrict the size of the user base that adopts this technology. On top of the cost, there are still some limitations with hand tracking and this technology can have trouble working in direct sunlight due to the use of IR tracking, which makes head-mounted displays a hard sell for consumer-facing activations.

The most exciting HMD we have seen in this space recently is VARJO, which actually enables Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in the same device. We recently had a huge demo with their engineering and marketing team, and we were very impressed by their Mixed Reality passthrough capabilities and clarity. This is definitely exciting for the Enterprise space. However, Apple’s technology will most likely be the eventual winner in consumer markets.

Web AR

Browser-based experiences can be a great option to reach a wide array of users online. These experiences are easy to access and don’t require any external downloads, which makes them work for larger consumer-facing activations and campaigns. Especially with the growing popularity of Facebook and Snapchat, consumers are used to this technology and are more likely to engage with this type of activation.

The downside of this technology is that these experiences don’t always work with every browser, and it’s almost impossible to solve for every user’s specific use case. In addition to browser compatibility issues, web-based AR experiences are typically a lot more limited than other AR options because they are dependent on the browser’s capabilities. If you’re planning a high-fidelity, complex AR activation, web-based development may not be the right fit for you.

That said, WebAR still offers a wide-variety of features and can allow companies to reach a very broad market with no extra software to download. Development continues on this platform and industry leaders, like Zapworks and 8th Wall, are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in browser-based AR experiences.

Q: WE’VE HEARD A LOT ABOUT AR HEADSETS. ARE THEY THE BEST OPTION?

There are several options for AR headsets on the market today, and this technology continues to evolve as more companies and consumers start adopting them. But before diving into the newest technology, it’s important to evaluate the overall objectives, audience and use case of your AR activation. For example, if you’re planning on executing a broad, consumer-facing activation/campaign, AR glasses are still not popular enough, and can be cost-prohibitive, so another AR platform may be best. However, if you’re planning an event or corporate training program in a more controlled environment, AR headsets may be a great option for you.

Depending on the headset you choose, battery life, field of view, clarity, and interaction methods can be limited. Headsets that don’t require external hardware tend to be more limited in their field of view and fidelity, but offer more freedom of movement. On the other hand, headsets that require external hardware are often more powerful and can deliver higher-fidelity experiences, but limit the user’s movement due to the connection needed to the external hardware. Once a hardware platform is settled on, the type of experience you can create is more clearly defined. ..

Below are a few companies at the forefront of AR Headset development to keep your eye on and evaluate for your future AR applications:

VARJO
Fusics
Microsoft
Facebook
Meta AR
Magic Leap
Apple

Q: OKAY, I’M INTERESTED IN CREATING AN AR EXPERIENCE. WHAT NOW?

Below is a quick checklist to run through before you enlist your agency’s help in planning and executing a new AR experience. It’s important to really think through your objectives and true needs before committing to a platform or investing in any new devices – these factors may change your course of action, so it’s important to think through all of these in detail before writing your project brief.

  • What kind of experience are you looking to execute and what is the technical proficiency of your target audience?
    • Widely accessible?
    • Consumer-facing?
    • Training or Assessment?
    • Individual or group experience?
  • What is the setting for this experience?
    • Indoor vs. outdoor
    • Lighting conditions
    • Level of control
  • What is your desired level of interaction?
    • How would you like for users to engage with your experience? Passive viewership, Simple Button Presses such as Video Controls, or Complex Gestures and Hand movements?
  • What is your overall budget?
    • This could determine the type of experience you’re able to execute, as some of these emerging technologies can be costly. Are you willing to pay $200 per headset? $20,000? There is a wide range. There is a lot that goes into designing an AR experience besides the hardware itself. Content creation, user testing, QA, and launch are all budget considerations to anticipate.

Q: WHAT IS THE BIGGEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU HAVE FOR BRANDS DIVING INTO AR FOR THE FIRST TIME?

The most crucial thing you need when planning any new, tech-focused activation is a good agency partner that understands your business and the latest technologies. We often see clients come to us with a very specific request (ex: an AR activation), but after digging into their true business objectives and going through the checklist above, the latest and greatest tech isn’t always the answer. It’s important to have an open and honest relationship with your agency so that you can determine the tech that best fits your needs – you shouldn’t be altering your vision to fit with the latest technology.

Also, be open to collaboration and prototyping at a very low fidelity to save costs as you explore options. We would love the opportunity to lead you through some design thinking sessions with your internal team and create some paper based or sketch based concepts you can circulate to spread your ideas.

Here is a great case study of an AR Prototype using paper materials and a video camera.

https://www.afternow.io/our-process/

CREDIT – Afternow.IO Team