Augmented Reality – The Journey So Far

A few months back a colleague handed me a report published by Juniper Research on mobile augmented reality (AR). The report predicted mobile based AR apps to witness 1.4 billion downloads by 2015 – a business worth $1.5 billion approximately.

I dropped my jaw and gawked at Juniper’s report. My reaction had nothing to do with the figures contained in there. I have never doubted AR’s potential all this while. In fact, somehow I have always known that one day AR was going to be big – probably too big to handle. Rather it was a surreal feeling for me. I was like ‘yay I was right about AR.’

But it also got me thinking about those early days when AR was still an experimental concept. So here I have tried to relive the past of AR, analyze its present, and foresee its future.

The Past

Wow! A trip down the memory lane reveals that our affair with AR is more than decades old – almost as old as 1960s.

This was a time when the market was still confused between virtual reality and augmented reality. In 1961, when cinematographer Morton Heilig developed Sensorama, a multi-sensory device, some hailed it as first of its kind AR system. But the device worked more on the lines of virtual reality than AR. And then just 7 years down the line in 1968 AR found its first big break when Ivan Sutherland created head mounted display system. This was our first AR system and the start of a lifelong affair. Hot on the heels in 1974, Myron Krueger developed Videoplace which was an artificial reality laboratory.

From 1960s to 1990s, the concept of AR floated around in the market under the nom de guerre of artificial reality or artificial intelligence. But then in 1992, Tom Caudell and David Mizell, researchers at Boeing, rechristened the concept and coined the term ‘augmented reality’. For the first time, they discussed in detail the difference between AR and virtual reality, thus creating a space of its own for AR in the market.

From here on, there was no looking back for AR. In 1992, IBM and Bellsouth introduced first smartphone, which would play a very vital role in AR’s growth in coming years. Then December 1993 saw GPS achieving operational capability which further powered up AR.

2000s saw steady contributions coming in to AR from people who dared to dream up a reality.

The Present

At present, AR appears to have found its niche with smartphones and tablet devices. Today, mobile AR apps are mushrooming all over the place. In addition to their cool quotient, their cheap prices have made them highly popular. But it has also made them overhyped. At times these AR apps are just ‘cool’ but not genuinely useful per se. Resultantly, we have an overcrowded mobile AR space.

But even amidst this crowd, we have a few stalwarts who have tasted success with AR apps for variety of purposes.

Branding: Two names that stand out here are Museum of London and Ben & Jerry’s. Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app has practically engaged its users in a historical experience. The app uses geo tagging to identify the user’s current location. Then it opens up a map and shows the London locations for which the user can view historic images. When the user clicks on the location the app overlays historical photos on that location in real-time.

Ben & Jerry’s Moo Vision is another great example of AR based branding. Their AR app allows users to use their iPhone camera to interact with product packaging of Ben & Jerry’s different flavors. The users can simply point their camera at a particular carton lid and take a virtual tour of the place where the ingredients originated.

Utility: The one name that pops up in utility based AR apps is AKQA’s AR app for USPS. They have developed PriorityMail.com for USPS that helps customers find out the right kind of packaging for their item. How it works is the customer first prints an eagle icon that triggers the hologram. Then he turns on his webcam and sound and launches the Virtual Box Simulator. Once done, he can point the printed icon to the webcam till a holographic image of a box appears. They can then compare the size of the item to be shipped with this holographic image to see if it fits.

Another utility based AR app example would be Tobi Virtual Dressing Room. It’s a classic app that overlays images of clothes on a customer’s image, as if in a dressing room. It’s a great way of enhancing online shopping for customers. Similarly, the World Lens app translates foreign language text in real-time – a lifesaver for linguistically challenged tourists.

Product Demos: Customers often cite lack of tangible product experience in online shopping as a deterring factor. But brands across the world are using AR powered demonstrations to improve customers’ visualization of their product. One such example is AT&T’s Unboxing. This Facebook app is specifically designed for the Windows 7 smartphones. The app lets users simulate and experience the latest features of the phones. It integrates a layer of social content like photos and status updates with chic motion graphics and interactive hot spots.

There are other brands like Converse, Rayban, JC Penny, to name a few, who are using AR apps for online product demos.

What all these highly successful AR apps have in common is that they are neatly thought out, well planned, and aimed at making life easy and thrilling for customers.

The Future

Augmented reality has finally found its ideal platform in smartphones and handheld devices. But we are not done yet with this platform. There is a lot more to be explored. The next big wave of development in augmented reality will focus on image, object, and color recognition.

While still evolving on the smartphone platform, augmented reality shall not be limited to it. We can foresee an AR based eyewear or glasses in very near future. Now a device like this will find immediate takers in the gaming community. But it will see a gradual social acceptance.

The other area where AR will start making inroads is B2B marketing and medicine. Now these fields will require AR to drift away from single viewer experience to a more collaborative experience wherein larger audiences can be engaged simultaneously. But nevertheless, it will happen.

Now that augmented reality has finally found strong ground under its feet and a direction to move ahead in, the next 5 to 7 years will potentially redefine our reality. Just wait and watch!

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