Augmented reality has spent the past few years on the cusp of going mainstream. Ever since the summer of Pokémon Go, experts have predicted that it’s on the verge of widespread adoption. While AR hasn’t yet reached the level of mainstream buzz it achieved during the summer of Niantic’s massive mobile gaming hit, the use of AR tools has been steadily rising for the past five years.
According to a report released by eMarketer, more than 83 million Americans interacted with some form of AR at least once a month over the past year. Many of those interactions were driven by social media apps, which use AR in their popular photo-enhancing filters and face-distorting lenses, giving AR a stronger foothold with millennials and Generation Z. As the coronavirus upends lifestyles across every demographic, exposure is likely to widen.
The pandemic has escalated three major trends – all of which are likely to drive AR adoption further into the mainstream.
1 Hunger for unique experiences
With the population largely at home, the use of streaming and mobile video products has risen across every demographic category, namely entertainment and gaming. As the pandemic lingers on, these new audiences will seek out new and enhanced experiences. People crave novelty and, with their ability to see it in their physical world severely curtailed, expect many users to turn to AR to add variety to their newly fixed surroundings.
2 Demand for differentiated content
The rise of new audiences has led to a comparable spike in new content. It’s a boom time for content creators of all stripes, but with rising competition, AR offers a way to stand out from the crowd by creating an experience that is both more immersive than traditional mobile video and stickier for new adopters facing a flood of similar content choices.
3 Changes in brand strategy
The pandemic has cut brands off from a number of ways they traditionally interacted with consumers. Marketing channels such as events are all but off limits and the in-store retail experience has significantly changed. As a result, many brands are adopting new strategies to better connect with consumers in a socially distanced world.
In categories such as automotive and home decor that lean heavily on in-person contact and on-site product experience, investing in AR experiences provides an effective alternative. This increased investment is likely to accelerate the adoption of the technology by a wide range of media and content publishers and, by extension, bring it directly into the hands – or palms – of more people.
While the pandemic is likely to accelerate interest in AR among marketers and the business and consumer audiences they serve, meeting this moment will take more than simple consumer interest. Most of the major milestones in the history of AR adoption have been driven by technical advances. AR’s biggest moments wouldn’t have been possible without the rise of mobile devices, the advent of high-resolution digital photography and the mass adoption of mobile GPS technology.
Fortunately, there are key developments under way today that we expect will move the needle on adoption and topple barriers to entry.
Plane tracking and visualisation
In order for AR to integrate cleanly with images of the real world, accurate plane detection is an unglamorous but core necessity. The launch of Apple’s latest AR development kit, ARKit 3.5, brings with it some advances in plane detection that will allow developers to improve the quality of AR experiments and more seamlessly integrate AR visuals into real-world video and photography. Google has also rolled out new capabilities for AR development on Android phones with the latest version of ARCore, which should upgrade 3D sensing and depth perception.
The emergence of AR for web
To date, the most ubiquitous examples of AR have been app-based. Tools such as Snapchat and Instagram have popularised AR experiences but also confined them to in-app environments. However, new tools will allow developers to create a wider range of AR experience for the mobile web desktop, vastly expanding the audience as well as the technology’s applications for digital content publishers and ecommerce businesses. Autoblog, for example, recently launched an AR experience that lets readers see a life-sized version of the new Ford Mustang Mach-E without an app. Google has also added AR functionality – albeit on a limited basis – in browser-based search.
Wearables and connected devices
Freeing AR from in-app environments is likely to spur adoption, but freeing it from mobile phones entirely will be an even more significant game-changer. As connected hardware expands beyond phones and tablets to wearable devices such as glasses, the potential to integrate AR into our daily lives in more novel ways will radically expand. For example, at the Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple introduced iOS 14, which adds momentum to a number of initiatives in this space.
More specialised expertise
While the pandemic is driving interest in AR for brands, it may be difficult for some to scale because their teams and technology aren’t fully 3D-ready. The ability to create AR assets from scratch is still limited to a fairly small pool of specialists, but a rising tide of third-party AR tools and experts will soon democratise the technology and provide brands with the guidance and skills they need to scale in AR without constraints.
Each of these technical advances, in combination with the radical changes to daily life wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, stands to accelerate the quality and adoption of AR experiences by consumers and brands. Like all great changes in our history, the pandemic will change the way we live and work, but as with all paradigm shifts it will bring new forms of media to help us better communicate, understand and experience the world as it now exists.
Iván Markman is chief business officer at Verizon Media