It is safe to say that the future of augmented reality (AR) looks bright. In late 2019, PwC predicted that VR and AR could add as much as $1.5 trillion, or 1.8 per cent GDP, to the global economy by 2030. The value provided by immersive technologies is plentiful, and companies are already using it to expand their marketing, retail, education, and many other initiatives.

Nick Rosa, Global Head of Immersive Learning at Accenture, agrees that the technology has a major role to play. ‘Imagine being able to see the name and job title of every person you’re talking to at work. Imagine learning every task you need to do on demand, while you do it. Imagine being able to understand at a glance if your date is happy, is sincere, or maybe even if is in love with you. Imagine all of the above in a world where you don’t have to watch a computer, TV, or mobile phone screen anymore. This is just a glimpse of the monumental shift in society awaiting for us in the Augmented Reality future that will unfold in the next 10 years.’

But how will the technology develop in the future? Will it continue to impact businesses, or fizzle out over time? No matter the flash and positivity around a new technology, all that matters in the end is how it will be used by businesses.

What is augmented reality?

As defined by Merriam-Webster, augmented reality is ‘an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera).’

Previous definitions incorporated headsets that used the same technology, overlaying the real world with information. Since then, the definition largely coincides with smartphones. When people use the term, they generally mean the virtual overlay enabled by the devices in our pockets.

The definition may shift slightly as AR glasses enter the market, as people incorporate augmented reality more in their lives.

Augmented reality has grown rapidly over the last few decades. Photo credit: Virtual Perceptions.
Augmented reality has grown rapidly over the last few decades. Photo credit: Virtual Perceptions.

History of augmented reality

The term ‘augmented reality’ was first used in 1990 by Boeing researcher Tom Caudell, while working with David Mizell on its industrial applications. The team created a head-mounted display (HMD) that could track the person’s head movements and show a hologram of sorts superimposed over the real world. By the 2000s, the European and German communities gathered interest in the technology and researched how companies can apply them.

The previous period marked the first enterprise interest in AR. By the early 2000s, consumer interest picked up as the first applications came to phones. One of the first was AR tennis, made for Nokia phones at the time when the company dominated the mobile industry. Though simple, the technology gained traction among a small number of enthusiasts. Magazines picked up the trend as well; Esquire launched the first issue that incorporated the technology, bringing Robert Downey Jr. to life on their pages in 2009.

By the early 2010s, multiple companies that fully specialised in providing AR services arrived at the market. Mobile games grew in popularity as well, culminating with the launch of Pokemon Go, one of the most popular mobile games ever made. Over the period companies like Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, and IKEA spread their wings and investigated retail, marketing, and packaging solutions that used AR.

By the late 2010s and early 2020s, rumours of AR glasses started to come out of Apple and Facebook. In addition, a once complicated creation process became straightforward as creatives were given tools to make their own experiences.

Pokemon Go has a major role in the history of augmented reality
Pokemon Go has a major role in the history of augmented reality. Photo credit: Niantic.

How is augmented reality created?

Software developers use a variety of tools to create their experiences depending on their preference. Some prefer to use Unity, a popular SDK favoured by companies creating gaming apps. Others may prefer Three.js or JavaScript, both useful for crating web-based experiences that can run on mobile browsers.

Once chosen, developers build their experience based on their project criteria, using a variety of languages. A popular one is JavaScript augmented with Typescript.

After the development phase, developers then deploy the experience as either a solus application, or as part of a company’s app, depending on the criteria of the project.

Creating augmented reality experiences is getting easier as easier, as alternative companies provide tools where users can make AR without needing to know how to code.

The future of augmented reality

Now that we have gone through the basics, we will now explore how AR will impact multiple industries in the future. From education to tourism, the technology will change the way we experience our everyday lives.

Charlotte Mikkelborg, Film Director and Immersive Experience Creator, is hopeful as well. ‘AR is cheaper to make in these current uncertain economic times and AR can be experienced by anyone with a smartphone which is a vast market compared to headset based VR. But there’s also the unique appeal of being able to augment your own reality and turn something mundane, into something entertaining, abstract or fantastical.’

Education

Classrooms have access to a large range of options for teaching children. Books and exercises help to drill information into their minds. Videos bring topics to life, helping pupils fully understand the subject matter. Smartboards show how concepts tie together, drawing lines between ideas and their path to conclusions. The future of augmented reality in education adds another useful tool to the arsenal that teachers wield.

Take Curiscope. The company creates t-shirts and posts that come to life when someone scans the product with their phones. Children can learn the complexity of the human body, with the pumping veins and facts about organs. Or explore the deepest reaches of space, wandering between the stars and planets.

AR will never replace a good book, teacher, or other traditional methods. But as a complementary measure, AR is effective.

Curiscope Multiverse
Curiscope Multiverse. Photo credit: Curiscope.

Retail

At the core of shopping is informing the customer as best as possible before making a purchase. The more information they have, the more likely that they will open their wallets and pay out for a product. For years this meant working copy to be as informative as possible, targeting customer needs which the product can solve. Ever since the advent of online shopping, practices morphed towards convenience and speed.

Augmented reality provides the next step. What better way of testing a product that seeing it in real life? For example, shopping for a sofa becomes easier if it can be virtually placed in a living room before purchase, seeing if the patchwork matches the wallpaper.

Another example is clothing. ASOS implemented AR with their shopping, letting people see their clothing in a new way before the items are delivered to homes. Beyond words on a webpage, images on a screen, or videos providing a 360-degree view, AR is the next iterative step for retailers.

ASOS is pioneering the future of augmented reality in retail. Photo credit: ASOS.
ASOS is pioneering the future of augmented reality in retail. Photo credit: ASOS.

Tourism

Imagine visiting a location without leaving the house? Seeing the sloping inclines of the Alps, the white sands of Croatia, or the rainforests of the Amazon? As immersive technologies grew in sophistication, many companies grew excited with the potential for tourism.

Since then, interest waned to a trickle of interest. Very few activities in life can match the real adventure. No amount of technology can replicate the soft heat of the Caribbean sun, or the heated smell of nature in Jamaica. The future of augmented reality in tourism is nebulous because businesses no longer see the value of immersion in an activity where authenticity is key.

Marketing

Between all other industries, marketing is one of the most exciting uses of AR because it sits alongside other channels for reaching consumers. Social media helps shoppers keep track of a product’s buzz. Television ads improve a brand’s perception or messaging. Newsletters connect directly to engaged shoppers and help companies nurture their already-established relationship. AR sits alongside these measures for one reason: engagement. Here, ‘augmented marketing’ becomes powerful.

Brands can prove that a customer is engaged with a brand via their interactions with an AR experience, showing a direct relationship between interest and intention. The analytics can be collected and used in the future and is more powerful than a simple ‘like’ on Twitter or Facebook. Immersive experiences also lead to long-term effects on memory as well.

Take Coca-Cola’s work in South Africa. Using their innovative approach, the soft drink company reached thousands of millennials in the country, using a simple experience that can be taken from any can. AR marketing is one of the most exciting innovations that will evolve rapidly in the future.

Why is WebAR important?

WebAR is one of the most important innovations in recent years because it expands how many devices can access AR. Previously companies needed to push consumers to download an app on their phone; a significant barrier for browsers who didn’t want to spend the additional effort.

With WebAR, the experience can be played directly in the mobile browser. Any user can either click a link or scan a code via their mobile browser, to be entered into the experience. This minimises the hassle of trying it out and making it more shareable across messaging apps like Messenger or WhatsApp. The innovation also enables 2.9bn devices to have access to the experience, a sharp rise compared to the smaller number willing to download an app.

When it comes to improving acceptance or penetration for augmented reality, WebAR will be one of the most crucial steps of the last few years.

The role of artificial intelligence and machine learning

So far, augmented reality has taken significant steps for immersion. But what are the next big innovations beyond WebAR, or its role in other industries? The answer lies in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

While objects can be placed in a room, their immersion is not as sophisticated as it could be. The lighting can be slightly off, as the reflections do not match the surface of an item. Further innovations would meld the virtual and real together, making a powerful and persuasive image on mobile devices.

Let’s not forget about edge computing as well. ‘Edge computing will also push AR to new limits, imagine a real time multiplayer AR drama which could play out around you at home,’ said Jessica Driscoll, Head of Immersive at Digital Catapult.

Further developments in immersion will use both. For now, the options available are still compelling and useful.



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Tom Ffiske

Editor, Virtual Perceptions

Tom Ffiske specialises in writing about VR, AR, and MR across the immersive reality industry. Tom is based in London.