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For a decade, mobile developers tried to turn augmented reality from an obscure technology into a mass market phenomenon. AR, which lets people train their phone cameras on an object or view and see it overlaid with graphics, promised so much. But whatever the developers tried – property prices mapped on to houses, star names mapped on to the night sky – nothing really stuck.
But then everything changed. And the reason was rabbit ears.
In 2014, Snapchat introduced filters. Suddenly, its 100 million users could map graphics on to their smiling faces: graphics like pig snouts, rainbow tongues and, yes, rabbit ears. All of a sudden, AR was mainstream. And when Pokémon GO came along in 2016, it got even bigger.
“I think AR is big and profound.”
Tim Cook · CEO, Apple
Now, the question is: can the technology progress from being an entertaining diversion? Can it, in fact, be the future of mobile?
Apple seems to think so. Its CEO Tim Cook has said: “I think AR is big and profound. It is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel at the start of it.”
Cook is hoping that “the start of it” is Apple’s own ARKit. This is a platform that does the ‘heavy lifting’ involved in AR, freeing developers to focus less on the tech and more on the ideas. Many hundreds already have, and Amazon is one of them. Its iOS app now lets shoppers on its US store choose a product, and then see how this virtual item might look in a room or on a table top.
And the financial services industry is taking an interest too. US personal finance startup Money Lion used ARKIt to launch an AR tool called Grow Your Stack, which lets customers see their account balance as stacks of cash projected on to the real world.
This is not an entirely original idea: New Zealand bank Westpac launched something similar – if a little more advanced – in 2014. Its customers could train their phone cameras on their bank card and then see their balances, transaction history, spend locations and other information overlaid as 3D bar charts on top.
Apple will be hoping that ARKit accelerates the development of tools like these. It believes the platform gives developers an instantly addressable market of hundreds of millions of AR-ready device owners (anyone who runs iOS 11 on an iPhone 6S or better).
It therefore makes AR another feature of mobile, rather than something that requires a dedicated headset. Indeed, market analyst Digi-Capital believes ‘mobile AR’ will be the primary driver of a $108bn market by 2021. Digi-Captal no doubt factored Google’s strategy into its forecast. Like Apple, it too has a developer platform for AR, which it calls ARCore SDK for Android.
“The fundamental long-term question is whether AR will remain part of the mobile experience or break out as a separate hardware purchase.”
If this really is the beginning of the AR age, there will be fascinating consequences. We may see AR ‘squatting’, for example (point your camera at the Tesco shop; see offers for Sainsbury’s). And ‘showrooming’ could go into overdrive. It might be possible to train your phone on any physical item and buy it instantly from an overlaid checkout.
Of course, the fundamental long-term question for Apple, Google, Samsung and the rest is whether AR will remain part of the mobile experience or break out as a separate hardware purchase. Indeed, there are strong rumours that Apple is working on its own AR eyewear product for launch in 2020.
What a risk. After all, the AR headset could be the eventual successor to the smartphone. Or it could be a dud.
Previous iterations of the technology suggest the latter: Google Glass and SnapChat Spectacles both failed. And then there is virtual reality. VR, unlike AR, locks users inside a totally simulated world. Developments in graphics and processing led to a wave of launches in the last few years. They also led Facebook to buy VR pioneer Oculus for $2bn in 2014.
But now the current wave of VR hype is ending. It seems that, for all the fabulous immersion that VR provides, people just aren’t comfortable with sweaty headsets that remove them from the world – and occasionally make them throw up. The market leaders, HTC Vive and Facebook Oculus, are rumoured to have each sold 500,000 headsets to date. By comparison, Apple sells around 750,000 iPhones every day.
Needless to say, Facebook is not giving up. Its CEO Mark Zuckerberg says VR is “the most social platform ever”, and is pinning his hopes on Spaces, a VR product that lets people meet in a virtual playground where they can chat, watch videos, take photos and more. And next year Facebook will launch a $199 headset designed for the mass market (the Oculus Rift originally sold for $599).
“For all the uncertainty around the AR and VR markets, they are still bursting with activity.”
This may be enough to keep the financial services space dabbling in the tech too. Among the experimenters to date are Fidelity Investments, whose StockCity app for Oculus Rift allows investors to visualise their portfolios as a collection of buildings. Even the Wall Street Journal has launched an app on Daydream (Google’s cheap and cheerful VR option), which presents live markets as floating graphics.
The long-term potential of consumer AR and VR is hard to call, which is why many are pinning their hopes on the enterprise space. In fact, several companies, including Epson, Osterhout Design Group, Recon Instruments and Vuzix, already produce smart glasses for professional use, while Ubimax, Upskill and others make custom software for this market.
One high profile success story comes from DHL Supply Chain. It used AR to improve the ‘vision picking’ in its warehouses. In a pilot, staff switched from using handheld devices to scan and find products to wearing Vuzix AR glasses running Ubimax software, which let them scan a code by looking at it. The display would then show the item’s location. The technology speeded up the process and freed up employees’ hands for other tasks, improving productivity by 15 per cent. In August, DHL committed to a global roll-out of the system.
Stories like this explain why, for all the uncertainty around the AR and VR markets, they are still bursting with activity. Analyst Super Vensures benchmarked over 600 AR companies in 2017, which it broadly categorised as follows:
- Headset makers
- Position, eye and gesture tracking spcialists
- Video processing and game engine specialists
- Tools developers
- Camera and video specialists
- Applications and games makers
- Content platform providers
- Social platform providers
- Ads specialists
Vertical app developers (education, retail, healthcare, industry and so on)
Investors, meanwhile, remain keen on both spaces. At the top end, AR headset maker Magic Leap bagged an eye-watering $794m Series C mega-round in February 2016, while Improbable raised $502m to build its VR simulation engine. Overall, market watcher CB Insights expects to see investors inject $2.16bn across 293 AR and VR deals by the end of 2017 – that’s 47 per cent up on 2016.
Clearly the VCs will be looking for real returns, not virtual ones.