When Pokémon Go’s characters hopped, swam and leapt out of people’s pockets into their palms two years ago, speculation about augmented reality going mainstream erupted. Then, we waited.
Other than a few utility apps for measuring rooms and superimposing new furniture and fabric configurations into home décor, not many new applications caught on. In the spring of 2018, however, consumer use of AR appears to be at an inflection point. This increased traction is the result of a reduction of the barrier to entry for development, design and delivery of AR content.
In terms of development, the familiarity with Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore platforms has generated an increase in professionally developed AR games and educational applications. Similarly, the advent of easier AR design tools and 3D scanning options has put the ability to create relevant apps in the hands of those without the deep pockets needed for professional engineering resources. Also, Apple’s App Store recently put prominent marketing behind new augmented reality experiences, including a week in which the store highlighted some of the best apps in a promotion called “AR Rising.”
These factors are combining to improve awareness of the technology’s ability to engage and entertain.
The App Store promotion launched around the same time that several magazines, newspapers and television networks also brought augmented reality content to the front of their digital offerings. ABC News published augmented reality that let consumers open 3D images of the horse carriage and palace guards associated with the Royal Wedding, adding their work to AR that the New York Times offered on figure skating at the 2018 Winter Olympics; and Time magazine’s partnership with Bill Gates earlier this year to produce a segment on global development for a special issue dedicated to optimism and hope. In that feature, the pages of the magazine came alive with video of a five-year-old boy in a developing country who — by turning that age — had reached a critical milestone indicating a longer life expectancy due to improved nutrition and health care.
Sports Illustrated, of course, provided an AR component to its perennial swimsuit issue, as well as offering an experience to complement coverage of Mt. Everest.
The most significant aspect of the App Store’s push around AR front may be that it is a further indication of the commitment by Apple CEO Tim Cook to see that AR moves into the mainstream. It came during the same month that Google was reported to be preparing to release an AR headset to compete with Microsoft’s HoloLens, and designs for standalone augmented reality glasses began to circulate on tech sites and in social media feeds. Qualcomm announced that it is working with HTC VIVE to embed its latest chip technology in their VR headsets, and there was speculation recently that Qualcomm will be providing a chipset to power a HoloLens 2 Microsoft is planning to release in 2019.
ARTS & EDUCATION
The content for the evolving hardware will be critical to the technology’s adoption. The items that the App Store featured included “Boulevard AR,” which allows the user to place a full-size classic painting on their wall and then dive deeply into the detail; Waypoint EDU, where students search in geolocated areas to discover pieces of history in a premade or exploratory hunt to collect the items; and, “Civilizations AR,” the tie-in to the BBC series that allows immersive 3D looks into artifacts including a mummy and the Rosetta Stone that you can peel back layers on to explore great detail in each object.
In another set of highlighted content, the store promoted apps that add depth and dimension to math and science learning: a biology app that gives students the x-ray vision to see skeletons and major organs of a frog, for example, and allows them to use of a virtual scalpel to dissect the amphibious creatures; the World Wildlife Fund’s app on building dams, fording rivers, going inside a rainstorm; and, GeoGebra AR that turns 3D graphs of “equations that you can walk around and see through.” Hollywood studios also jumped into the stream with augmented reality components being used in the marketing of Pixar’s “Incredibles 2.”
Allowing educators, small businesses and nonprofit organizations to easily create augmented reality stories through the use of drag and drop tools is another promising advent in the production pipeline. Described as “an AR and VR technology innovator,” Verizon’s research and development group, envrmnt, is on the leading edge of this effort. envrmnt creates tools and best practices to support the simple production and distribution of AR techniques that allows anyone with a browser and a library of 360-degree video or 3D images “to overlay … branded content on the real world.” Other commercial tools, including Blippar and Zappar, offer build-it-yourself options, as well.
The envrmnt group is part of a larger Verizon effort to experiment with high-bandwidth products that will be activated by a 5G world. Verizon expects 5G to be transformational for mobile communication, commerce and entertainment, leading to the instantaneous streaming of video, augmented and virtual reality directly from the cloud, and making the social aspect of these emerging technologies part of our everyday lives.
envrmnt also has a tool in beta geared to using AR for commerce. The tool enables businesses to establish ways for customers to browse products in augmented reality and quickly send to a shopping cart to purchase. It is planned for broader release later this year, according to envrmnt. The group says that is looking to create more tools to support rapid, simple and scalable development of these experiences without heavy engineering expertise. envrmnt states that its “mission is to create technology that delivers instant access to augmented and virtual worlds around the globe.”
With the tools that Verizon is making available and the increased ease of building on the platforms from Apple and Google, the breakout days for augmented reality content appear to be approaching quickly.