Augmented Reality: Believe The Hype (Cycle)

Gartner’s annual report in 2008 was titled “Hype Cycle of Emerging Technologies.” This was the first year the IT and technology research firm’s annual report mentioned augmented reality (AR). In it, Gartner estimated that AR was “more than 10 years” from mainstream adoption.

In 2009, a new way for consumers to view geotagged data emerged. By using the camera view of a smartphone to graphically display spatially distributed data points, Wikitude, Sekai Camera (now defunct), Layar and Junaio were the first apps to be categorized as augmented reality browsers.

Academics and researchers were quick to dismiss the browsers; to them it wasn’t AR, as none of the browsers utilized computer vision techniques, but instead simply used GPS coordinates. Nevertheless, it felt like the future had arrived and, by the turn of the decade, AR browsers had become tech media darlings and they began to receive multi-million-dollar investments.

The R&D budgets grew and this, alongside advancements in the underlying smartphone technology, enabled the first steps toward true mobile augmented reality: The software began to understand what it could see. Initially the browsers could recognize set patterns: barcodes, QR codes and fiducial AR markers. The vision capability quickly evolved and by the end of 2011, image recognition and natural feature tracking (NFT) were possible using AR browsers on mobile devices.

It was around this time that Blippar, Zappar and Aurasma joined the AR browser market. These notable newcomers benefitted from not having to make the transition from GPS-based AR to image recognition and gained traction in the marketplace quickly.

Fast-forward a few years and in many respects Gartner’s 2008 forecast has mainly held true. Certainly AR browsers have yet failed to have an impact on the day-to-day life of even hardcore enthusiasts, let alone everyday people.

Meanwhile AR has begun to achieve high-growth adoption. In 2010, a startup called Quest Visual created a translation app called “Word Lens.” This ingenious tool used optical character recognition on any foreign language and augmented reality to overlay a translation on the original text. Google acquired Quest Visual in 2014 for an undisclosed sum, and the augmented reality feature has been incorporated into Google Translate. Today, the most widely used augmented reality application in the world is Google Translate.

Aurasma, Blippar, Layar and Zappar are well-funded companies, with bright minds working on an exciting technology. That said, there isn’t much to differentiate them. To achieve their goal of ubiquity they are all targeting the same low-hanging fruit: print and packaging for marketing purposes, with relatively similar solutions and relatively similar levels of success.

Real success relies on going beyond the easily won deals and massaged metrics.

Given the similarities though, AR browsers are “walled-gardens:” No standards exist to allow for AR content to be interchangeable. If this were the World Wide Web, it would be the equivalent of the search engine Bing only being accessible via Internet Explorer and Google only on Chrome. It wouldn’t be a problem if they were popular; most markets have space for several companies with a similar offer. But the user review scores on the various app stores indicate they are less popular now than ever before. It seems there’s a complete disconnect between AR browsers and the people who actually use their product.

However, when AR browser spokespeople appear on TV news or at industry events, they all claim traction, measuring their success by the brands they have attracted to their platform. They also mention they’ve had x-million downloads, and quote statistics such as “average dwell times of x-seconds.” But real success relies on going beyond the easily won deals and massaged metrics.

It’s fair to say that a large percentage of consumer brands have now experimented with augmented reality in some form, the majority using AR browsers. All gold rushes have a life cycle. Perhaps as evidence to the potential end of the craze in existing markets, AR browsers are currently aggressively expanding their product to newly equipped, emerging markets — where they can employ the same old tactics with expectations of yielding the same results.

By this reasoning, it’s not a technology issue holding back AR from mainstream adoption, it’s a governance issue by ARs’ biggest players.

Unless the focus shifts from attracting the Next Big Brand to adding value to the everyday lives of their end users, the AR Browsers — who are in the best position to be taking the augmented reality industry forward — are actually holding it back. If they fail to improve, the brands and businesses they depend upon will become cautious of entrusting their content with a third-party and their legion of unimpressed end users.