As the physical and virtual worlds become ever more connected, certain technologies are closing the gap between the two environs even further by blurring the edges between them.
Augmented reality (AR) is one particularly transformative concept, merging the digital with the physical in a way that serves to entertain, educate, and enhance our interactions with the world around us.
If augmented reality apps have so far passed you by, the following overview will help you get up to speed with AR and the possibilities it offers to you and your business.
Blend of Physical and Digital
Quite simply, augmented reality is the superimposition of virtual world elements onto real-time visualizations of the physical world. As an example, let’s say you have an AR app on your smartphone.
When you open the app, you see a picture of the world around you from the viewpoint of your phone’s camera. But in addition to the physical world, you see digital information laid over it. This information can take the form of text labels, computer-generated avatars, images, or icons.
These computer-generated images may be static or may move dynamically on your screen. As you pan the camera, the digital augmentations can move or change in contextual harmony with the physical view.
As simple as it may sound, this melding of the physical and digital worlds offers many of the advantages of full virtual reality but is many times more versatile. The vast spectrum of possible applications may explain why augmented reality apps are hugely popular already (as highlighted by the graph above), with adoption expected to scale massively over the next four to five years.
3 Ways to Augment Reality
Mobile app development services increasingly include engineering of AR apps for smartphones, tablets, and wearable devices. By overlaying digital information onto a physical view of the user’s surroundings, these apps create enhanced user experiences. Such an app can be based on one of the three main methods for creating augmented reality.
Location-based AR: This method uses location features, such as the compass, GPS, and accelerometer, which you most likely have built into your mobile phone. Information from these sensors is used to display location data over the top of the image coming from the phone’s camera, as shown below.
Marker-based AR: This form of AR uses markers, such as QR codes, to trigger digital overlays onto a camera-view of the real world. This technique is also known as recognition-based AR. The overlaying information pops up when the application detects a marker via the device’s camera.
Markerless AR: This is the most sophisticated form of augmented reality. At its simplest, it involves the use of advanced algorithms to augment a camera image. At the more complex end of the markerless AR spectrum, epitomized by Google’s Tango model, solutions require specialized hardware and are not yet in widespread use.
Augmented Reality Apps for Entertainment
While AR is gaining ground as a practical technology for use in many areas, it is perhaps best known right now for its entertainment value. Augmented reality inspires the creation of multiple games, virtual pets, and other types of entertainment apps that merge reality with a virtual universe.
Indeed, some AR entertainment apps have gained worldwide renown. A few of them have attracted cult followings and spawned passionate fan communities that span the globe.
- Pokémon Go: An augmented reality game that has users physically chasing digitally rendered characters through the real world. At the peak of the game’s popularity in 2016, Pokémon Go players numbered more than 28 million in the United States alone, according to technology media site Recode.
- WallaMe: An augmented reality app that lets users leave hidden messages throughout the real world. Once a message has been created, other WallaMe users can read it when they point their devices at the right location.
- Ingress: An AR multiplayer game that resembles King of the Hill. Ingress transforms the real world into virtual territories that the players from two competing factions conquer. The game adds to the real map a network of virtual ‘portals’ situated in beautiful and unique places. To capture these portals and territory between them, players must visit their real-world locations.
Augmented Retaility: AR in Retail and Ecommerce
AR may be associated largely with entertainment, but it is a technology with practical advantages far beyond those necessary for digital fun. Augmented reality apps have already gained a firm footing in the retail sector, and shoppers appear to be receiving it with marked enthusiasm.
For example, a study by Interactions found that 61% of consumers would prefer stores offering AR to outlets that have not yet deployed the technology, and 40% are even prepared to pay more for products if they can experience them first via retail AR technology.
The consumer perception of AR is one thing. But what are the concrete benefits? For the shopper, it’s all about information and, of course, fun. For the retailer though, improving the customer experience with augmented reality is a step on the path to increased profit.
AR Gives Home-Shopping a New Meaning
As popular as AR is in retail, operators are only scratching the surface of what it can offer. In many ways, it is actually reducing the distinction between brick-and-mortar and electronic commerce, as retailers in both environments use AR apps to bring the store into the consumer’s home.
AR can help consumers make informed purchasing decisions without having to visit a physical retail outlet, or hunker down in front of a computer for hours of research. Take the case of a mobile retail app that allows cosmetics shoppers to apply virtual beauty products to their own selfie-shots—just to see how well the real products would suit them. That’s exactly what they can do with the Visual Artist app by Sephora, which also features makeup tutorials to help consumers get the best from the retailer’s brands.
A homemaker can choose items of furniture from a retailer’s catalog and, using his or her phone-camera, place them in different locations in a room to see how they look and fit. This is the premise behind IKEA Place, the Swedish furniture giant’s AR catalog app. IKEA Place helps shoppers virtually try items of furniture in their homes, before seamlessly directing them to IKEA’s ecommerce site to complete their purchases.
While not quite ready for primetime, new AR developments will soon make it possible to design an entire kitchen from a retailer’s product range by overlaying 3D images of units and appliances onto the camera-view of the physical room-space.
Increasing In-store Immersion
When today’s consumers do get out of their houses to the high street or mall, they want it to be as much an adventure as a shopping trip. Augmented reality, along with other technologies new to traditional retail, such as Bluetooth low energy beacons and RFID tags, is able to provide that sense of being immersed in a special experience.
The experience starts with app engagement at home and continues into the store itself, where shoppers can point their phone-cameras at areas or items and see prices, discounts, and promotions displayed on their screens. They may even be able to enjoy a gamified shopping trip, in which a hunt with the camera may track down a marker unlocking prizes or exclusive offers.
However, augmented reality in-store is not limited to downloadable apps, because the IoT is enabling more and more commercial hardware to display digital information to shoppers. Examples include fitting room mirrors with the AR functionality, which let apparel-shoppers see and try virtual items to match and coordinate with the garments they are physically trying on.
AR Brings Advertising to Life
As well as engaging those already planning to purchase, augmented reality helps retailers to catch consumers’ attention earlier in the customer journey. Some brick-and-mortar stores are deploying AR window displays, which can immerse passers-by in interactive advertising campaigns.
Retailers that have already used AR interactive advertising displays include John Lewis in London, UK (Smart TV campaign using TVs and speakers in store windows) and Net-a-Porter, whose campaign for a new fashion collection utilized AR displays in storefronts around the world.
The Rise of the Invisible Supermarket
To illustrate just how limitless the potential for augmented reality may be, one final retail example is worthy of special note. China’s biggest online grocer, Yihaodian, which is majority-owned by Walmart, uses an AR app to provide a traditional-style shopping experience in over 1,000 parking lots, parks and tourist spots. In fact, inexplicably, there’s even a Yihaodian supermarket in the middle of Tiananmen Square.
Invisible to the naked eye, these stores are nevertheless very real, and exist in vivid living color for anyone with the Yihaodian app on their mobile device. With the app activated, users can walk through the aisles displayed on their screen, tapping the items they wish to buy. Finally, these open-air virtual shoppers can check out and pay online, after which their purchases will be delivered to their homes.
The idea may sound quirky, and it’s easy to wonder why anyone would want to go outside in order to shop online. But then, millions of phone owners go out to chase 3D virtual creatures around, so why not make some of that time productive, by combining it with a bit of grocery shopping?
Other Industries making use of AR
Whether your business operates in retail or another industry, augmented reality looks set to disrupt the way things are done. If it doesn’t already feature in your technology strategy, it’s probably just a matter of time before it must.
Travel and Tourism: Location-based augmented reality apps are finding a welcome audience in the travel sector. Uses include virtual hotel tours, interactive guides to tourist attractions, and real-time weather forecasts. For instance, Wikitude is a mobile app that overlays various information categories over the image displayed by a smartphone camera. Categories include the world heritage list, wildlife parks in Asia, Irish pubs worldwide and more.
Education: Children and adults alike assimilate educational content more easily when they can interact with it. It should be no surprise therefore, that augmented reality apps are being well received by educators and students alike.
They are especially valuable for making dry subjects, like the periodic table of chemical elements, more engaging for students. Education app Elements 4D does this, while also making chemistry easier to teach when real experiments are not practical.
The Elements 4D app is used in conjunction with a number of wooden blocks that serve as markers. When students point their devices at the blocks, the elements come to life in front of their eyes. Combinations of elements react authentically, making formulaic education both exciting and safe.
Manufacturing: In manufacturing, AR software is often developed for use on wearable hardware, rather than mobile devices. For example, AR glasses are used to provide dynamic work instructions for complex assembly processes, equipment inspection, and quality control.
Vuforia is a great example of an AR maintenance app for the manufacturing industry. It works by interacting with thingmarks, which are essentially scannable labels attached to the working parts of manufacturing machines. When a technician scans a thingmark with their phone or AR glasses, they are presented with an overlay containing all available status-data for the part they’re viewing.
Healthcare: In healthcare, AR is being applied across a spectrum ranging from patient self-care to life-saving surgical procedures.
A classic example of AR in healthcare is VIPAAR, a medical app used with Google Glass. VIPAAR allows experienced surgeons to assist their peers and students during live procedures—without being physically present.
The Future of AR: Is it Right Before Your Eyes?
It wasn’t so long ago that virtual reality was earmarked as the true future of immersive digital experiences, but the hype over VR has abated somewhat of late. In the meantime, augmented reality is taking big strides into the future. This is perhaps because unlike VR—which places the user in a wholly artificial environment—AR integrates the virtual and physical worlds dynamically and can be used anywhere.
This makes AR a feasible everyday source of entertainment, knowledge, and information. Perhaps the best thing to happen for AR would be the mass adoption of wearable technology, especially glasses, as that kind of hardware makes AR interaction more natural.
Indeed, a Silicon Valley startup Magic Leap is staking its future on a harmonious pairing of glasses and AR software, with plans to market a visual and auditory experience it calls “mixed reality.” So in the near future, we may see headgear begin to replace the smartphone as the must-have mobile device.
Watch out for the Pokémon Effect in Retail
Whether the future will see us all wearing AR headsets or pointing phones at anything and everything, it’s fair to expect augmented reality to become more pervasive across many industrial and commercial areas, with retail perhaps having the most to gain.
Of course, we can only wait and see, but if the graph at the beginning of this article is anything to go by, the augmented reality user-base is set to double over the next 12 months or so.
Is your retail business going to ride the rising AR tide? If not, beware, because like Yihaodian, your competitors may soon have invisible stores located right in front of your own outlets—and just like those elusive Pokémon Go characters, you won’t even know they are there.