In recent days, Apple and Google each launched augmented reality development kits. Meanwhile, insiders say the new iPhone will make a big feature of the tech. So, a decade after the tech first emerged, is this really the start the AR age? Tim Green offers his thoughts…
Ten years ago I got my first glimpse of augmented reality. An Austrian company, Wikitude, demonstrated how it could map graphics on to real world landscapes just by pointing a camera phone at them.
Wow, I thought. I told everyone I knew: this stuff will change the world.
It didn’t. For nearly a decade, nothing really happened with AR. Actually, that’s not true. AR companies like Blippar bagged lots of experimental brand marketing budget. They kept the idea interesting.
But they didn’t make it mainstream.
Meantime, I kept the faith. I felt augmented reality had enormous potential across every conceivable vertical. I was aware that the tech was born when Boeing engineers were given head-mounted displays that could overlay aeroplane wiring with overlaid instructions. It saved them from looking back and forth at their manuals.
This marvellous utility was the origin story of AR. One could imagine countless twists on it: AR product manuals; AR dietary instructions; AR interior design; AR movie trailers.
Instead, the breakthrough came with rabbit ears.
Yes, it was SnapChat filters that moved AR into the mass market. SnapChat filters and Pokemon Go showdowns.
But again, this observation comes with a slight caveat. After all, SnapChat and Pokemon skew pretty young. They’re frivolous applications of the tech (nothing inherently wrong with that), and so hardly likely to drive a new class of hardware sales.
And, let’s be honest, reviving the smartphone market is the whole point of AR at the moment.
The analysts have been saying it for a while now: device sales are flatlining as replacement cycles lengthen. Essentially, most people who want a smartphone now have one. And their phones are so good, they are in no hurry to replace them.
The attraction of a slightly better camera or a new kind of touch interface is not enough to turn many iPhone 6s users into iPhone 7 users.
The industry needs something radically new to force people to get excited about tech again (and buy units). This is certainly not the watch. IDC said wearable sales hit 26.3 million units in 2Q 2017.
It’s not VR either. There’s little consensus on sales of the various headsets. But estimates such it’s between 8 million and 14 million. That’s lifetime sales.
These two sectors have their cheerleaders. But come on, smartphone shipments were 366.2 million units over the same period.
So maybe AR is the new new thing.
If it is, it will almost certainly be as an must-have new add-on to the smartphone itself. Much as the industry would love to sell us dedicated AR headsets, it appears consumers are not ready for that.
Google Glass was a fascinating but ultimately ridiculed experiment. And SnapChat sold an estimated 41,500 pairs of Spectacles last quarter.
Next week, we’ll find out if Apple thinks the same.
The rumours suggest the new iPhone 8 (or possibly iPhone X) will showcase a new AR-enabled dual camera set up, and a prime spot for AR tech inside iOS 11.
But you never know with Apple, of course. We were supposed to get cars and TV sets, but they failed to materialise. That said, Tim Cook has talked gushingly about the potential of AR and the company did unveil its AR Kit developer platform at its global developers conference in June.
So the smart money is on Apple betting big on AR next week. And the speculation is that it could position the tech as an enhancement for maps, rather than some kind of gaming diversion. This would allow any business to easily support overlays that appear when a user trains his or her camera on their location.
It seems the obvious way to go. AR in maps would be easily understood by users, deliver instant value back to enterprises and avoid driving people to a weird new ‘AR app’. Instead, they would just go to the familiar old mapping app.
Another reason for believing Apple might be ready to pull the AR trigger is that Google is already doing the same.
Just days ago it announced its ARCore SDK for Android. Like Apple’s ARKit, it’s a framework that encourages developers to build AR apps. In fact, Google already did this once before with a platform called Tango. But ARCore works better across more devices (Google says the platform will work on 100 million of them).
If this really is the beginning of the AR age, there are sure to be all manner of unintended consequences. We’ll probably hear more talk of AR squatting wherein businesses hijack their rivals domains (point your camera at the Nike shop, get offers for Adidas). AR could also put showrooming on steroids. Just train your phone screen on a physical item and buy it online instantly from the overlaid checkout.
But how will users respond? Will they really hold their cameras up in the air for more than a second or two? Will AR move people back outside again as they search for unique experiences unavailable when they’re inside? If so, will they get run over and walk into lakes?
Could something as prosaic as battery life de-rail the whole thing?
I don’t think so. I’m betting AR is a big deal. We’ll get used to a physical world filled with overlays pretty fast. Maybe finding a spot that lacks overlaid information will be akin to an area with no mobile coverage today.
This is exciting/depressing in equal measure. But that’s the future for you.
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