Today’s businesses and marketers are intensely focused on enhancing the digital user experience. Augmented reality doubles down on that idea, giving them the ability to produce real-world user experiences that literally become digital. And augmented reality is big business. According to data from Juniper Research, 60 million users across smartphones, tablets and smart glasses will utilize Augmented Reality apps in 2014; this number is expected to more than treble to 200 million unique users by 2018. With such a robust adoption curve, augmented reality is poised to fundamentally alter the user experience, and in doing so greatly impact the business mainstream.
But what is augmented reality, anyway? The term “augmented reality” is often used interchangeably with its technological cousin, “virtual reality.” This is an unfortunate misapplication, as each term represents a different track- one outward focused and one inward focused- that we as humans are headed down with respect to our interface with digital technology in the near and distant future.
Essentially, augmented reality blurs the lines between what is real and what is computer generated; it links the real and virtual worlds, using digital technology to enhance a person’s external surroundings. Augmented reality provides additional information so the user can view the world in a different manner. In this way, augmented reality can be understood as an externally focused digital interface.
By contrast, virtual reality is a completely immersive, computer generated environment. Advanced computer, networking, display, interaction, and graphics technologies allow us to create photorealistic 3D scenes; to view, hear, touch, and even smell the computer generated environment. Virtual reality is all about convincing the user they are in a place where they actually are not. In this way, virtual reality can be understood as an internally focused digital interface.
Lending to its external focus, almost all augmented reality tools are apps for mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets or wearables. Augmented reality provides a digitally enhanced view (reality) of the world in which we live and interact on a daily basis. Doing so requires a filter or lens (i.e. a smartphone, tablet, or wearable) to properly distill, or view, this enhanced reality. Given this, it comes as no surprise that most of the augment reality start-ups I’ve read about are creating apps for Google Glass.
Given the raison d’etre of augmented reality is to enhance the user experience, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine the innumerable applications of augmented reality that will affect our daily lives, and as such, that businesses should be thinking about. Putting on my consumer/user hat, here are a few I find particularly interesting.
Remember the movie Minority Report, where Tom Cruise was able to view and manipulate screen images in a 3D environment? AR technology is bringing what was once the stuff of science fiction into the realm of reality. Tech start-up SeeSpace is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for its InAiR augmented television device. InAIR uses your TV screen and layers in additional content from the Web and social media to simulate 2D or 3D dimensional UX; when activated in 3D mode, the layers of Internet content appear to be positioned in front of the screen and can be dynamically manipulated by the viewer, a la Minority Report. These foreground layers of information appear to be holograms floating "in air" (thus the name).
To create a truly social TV experience, inAIR can also identify what you are watching on TV and automatically gather relevant Internet and social content, placing these layers of Web information in front of your TV screen in real time.
Check out this YouTube video to get a taste of how the interface works.
Who said print is dead? Dutch startup Layar is attempting to do its part to help reverse the decline in the print publishing industry with its mobile augmented reality app. The company uses augmented reality to turn traditional print media into an interactive experience, adding “layers” of interactive digital content to the printed page. Founded in 2009, Layar gained international attention as one of the first mobile augmented reality browsers to hit the market. To speed up adoptions, the company used an open development platform to attract thousands of developers to create AR content. According to the company website, the Layar App (Android and iOS) has been downloaded over 35 million times, and the Layar Creator (a web-based, self-service interactive print creation tool introduced in 2012) is used by over 64,000 publishers and editors.
This YouTube video provides a visual illustration of some of the things Layar’s app can do.
Look out Google Glass, here comes Innovega. The company made a splash at CES this year with its immersive augmented reality sunglasses that utilize specially designed contact lenses to produce an impressive glanceable display experience that is 40x the screen area of Google Glass with 6x the resolution- this technology may represent the next generation Google Glass. The company is still working to get FDA approval for its proprietary iOptik lens system before it can it the open market. Given the obvious military application, it comes as no surprise that Innovega has received funding from DARPA for the project.
This video explains Innovega’s unique technology in more detail.
A sign that AR technology is going mainstream, Amazon has recently integrated the company’s own augmented reality technology into its iOS app, allowing shoppers to scan for more products using their iPhone cameras. Actually, Amazon has been tinkering with AR for over two years through its Flow app. In essence, the technology lets users snap a photo of a product instead of scanning the barcode or typing the name of the item into a search bar. It then pulls up the product from the photo, allowing customers to purchase it instantly. Just imagine the implications of this technology on the already controversial practice of showrooming. No word as to when Amazon will roll out a version for Android.
As these four examples reflect, hardly the stuff of science fiction, AR technology is quickly weaving into the fabric of our daily lives, forever altering and enhancing our viewing, reading, and purchasing experiences, and- with technologies like Google Glass and Innovega- altering and enhancing the very way in which we see the world around us. The promise of augmented reality technology to enhance the user experience will ensure its reach into every quarter; its pervasiveness will create innumerable opportunities for businesses to capitalize on.