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Augment the user experience with AR mobile apps

While the technology behind augmented reality (AR) is older than you might realize (think decades rather than years), a real explosion of investment in AR is a more recent development. We expect this investment to grow at a rapid rate, particularly when it comes to AR mobile apps.

In fact, the global mobile AR market is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth rate (CAGR) of 61 percent between 2017 and 2023. Why the sudden interest?

For one, people continue to become increasingly glued to their smartphones and other personal devices, spending more time than ever in a mobile world. Up until recently, limitations in hardware and software made it challenging to add AR to mobile apps.

While these challenges have not completely disappeared (in fact, we’ll dive into some of them a bit later), enough progress has been made to allow a host of AR mobile apps to burst onto the scene.

Now that Pandora’s box has been opened thanks to successes such as Snapchat and Pokemon Go, everyone wants to look inside.

How AR mobile apps work and why you should embrace them

Let’s start from the beginning with a brief overview of augmented reality. AR—not to be confused with its brethren technology, Virtual Reality (VR)—combines elements from the physical and digital worlds to create an artificial environment or experience for the end user.

AR enhances your environment, while VR replaces it entirely. The imposed digital information in an AR app may include text, infographics, 3D images, and much more.

When it comes to AR mobile apps, they typically fall into one of the following categories:

  • Marker-based apps—A camera identifies visual markers or objects and displays a virtual overlay when the marker is sensed by the device. The marker is replaced on the screen with a virtual 3D version of itself, which can be observed from various angles and manipulated in new ways.
  • Location-based apps—A GPS, digital compass, or other tracking tool provides data location information, which activates certain AR visualizations.

A third approach combines the two, using both marker-based and location-based services for AR visualization.

The benefits of AR apps include:

  • Enhanced user experience through digital interactions with physical surroundings.
  • Increased availability of information to the end user, with little to no user effort required.
  • The creation of unique and intriguing content, because users have the ability to create realities that did not formerly exist.
  • Expanding the appeal of your mobile app, especially to the younger population, which has come to expect this type of technology.
  • Improved user retention rates due to increased engagement and interactivity with the app.

Industries diving into the AR mobile app space

While all industries can leverage AR for their benefit, a few stand out as early adopters.

Retail

AR technology allows consumers to virtually try on clothing and makeup, or see how a piece of furniture will look in their living room. Stores benefit by being able to show consumers more options than they could ever physically display in a store, giving shoppers the ability to make more informed and confident purchases.

Leaders in this space include IKEA Place and L’Oreal.

Entertainment

Snapchat is, of course, one of the leading AR mobile apps when it comes to sheer fun and enjoyment. As we look to the future, we expect AR to push the boundaries when it comes to entertainment, possibly reinventing old board games, interacting with television shows, and even enhancing the sports fan experience.

Games

The gaming industry was one of the pioneers in augmented reality app development with Pokemon Go. This app generated excitement, increased user engagement, and improved retention rates.

The app shattered the record for downloads and sales when it was released in 2016 and has raked in more than $2 billion in revenue. It is still one of the most popular mobile apps. When other mobile app developers saw the viral response to this AR mobile app, they wanted in.

As we look beyond these leaders, it is important to remember that no industry should overlook the possibilities of AR—even when it comes to a more traditional business, office, or factory setting.

For example, an AR mobile app could provide workers with valuable information such as product specs and safety warnings as they are working—right in their field of vision—to increase productivity and safety. Designers can interact with product enhancements and see what they will look like before investing time and money in a physical prototype.

It doesn’t take much to see how easily the applications of AR go well beyond fun and games. We are actually currently working on an industrial design lighting app that uses AR to show the illumination coverage of various light fixtures and bulb combinations.

Tools for building augmented reality mobile apps

Designing and developing a mobile app with augmented reality technology is no simple feat. But there are many Software Developer Kits (SDKs) available to make it easier.

  • ARKit—This free developer tool from Apple allows developers to integrate the device camera and motion features to add AR experience to an app. ARKit 2 adds the ability to create persistent AR experiences that can be picked up again in a later session and supports shared AR experiences.
  • ARCore—This is Google’s open source platform for building AR experiences. ARCore uses motion tracking, environmental understanding, and light estimation to integrate virtual content with the physical world through the device camera.
  • 8th Wall—This augmented reality workspace allows developers to create prototypes with 3D models that can be shared with clients. It also supports cross-platform apps, so you can build your AR mobile app once and deploy across both iOS and Android.
  • Vuforia—This AR SDK recognizes multiple objects, supports text recognition, and can turn static images into motion video, among other features. Both free and paid versions are available.

When selecting an SDK, keep the following items in mind:

  • Cost—There are free open-source SDKs and paid ones. Paid versions usually offer tiers of pricing. A free version may work for a basic AR experience, but complex apps with a lot of dynamic content will probably require a paid commercial SDK.
  • Platform—There are many toolkits that support iOS and Android, but you need to know which platform you want to support, or if you want to build a cross-platform app. If you want to build for Windows or MacOS, your options are a bit more limited.
  • Supported features—Do you want 3D recognition and tracking in your app or GPS support? Make sure you know which features are must-haves, so you select an SDK that supports them.
  • SLAM support—Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) is an algorithm that maps the user’s environment and tracks their movement. When SLAM is added to your app, the app can remember where physical objects are and use this as a reference point for placing virtual images, while also taking the user’s movement into account. The bonus here is that this can be used indoors (whereas GPS is limited to outdoors).
  • Storage—Will you store data in the cloud or locally? If you plan on adding a lot of markers to your app, go with the cloud (to avoid eating up local storage space). If you are not adding a ton of markers, you may want to consider local storage so users can run the app offline. Some SDKs support a greater number of markers than others, so be sure to take this into account when making a choice.

Issues to be mindful of with augmented reality app development

Hardware limitations

Every smartphone camera has different capabilities, and the majority of them capture 2D images. This creates a challenge for AR mobile app developers trying to superimpose a 3D visualization.

A high degree of precision from GPS sensors is another necessary ingredient for a high-quality AR app. There can be accuracy issues with these sensors at times, and in certain locations.

Ways to work around these challenges include:

  • Enhancing the smartphone camera with 2D QR and barcode markers.
  • Using large landmarks when possible when faced with poor GPS accuracy.

Multi-user experience limitations

Most AR mobile apps in the market today are for a single user, but as development continues, the demand for a truly multi-user experience will increase. This will create challenges for app performance and load time that mobile app developers will need to work around.

Software limitations

Given the relative newness of AR technology in the mobile app world, there are a number of software challenges and interoperability issues developers face.

For example, many new devices each come with their own kit for developing AR apps, forcing developers to build for a specific platform and learn the nuances between kits if they want to develop for multiple platforms.

These types of software issues are typical for any newer technology, so we expect them to fade away over time as AR moves into the mainstream of mobile app development.

Privacy and legal issues

The rise of GDPR and similar regulations raise some questions around privacy in AR mobile apps, and we also expect to see copyright and ownership issues come to the fore.

Who is the legal owner of the AR superimposed image? This can become an important issue when the image is of a famous landmark or other well-known entity.

Taking this a step further, who owns the “reality” that is created within the app? If a user creates something within the app that becomes popular, does the user own it or is it the property of the app development company?

We expect to see legal and governmental regulations develop as the market expands for AR mobile apps.

Traditional design methods don’t always work

AR is a new medium for mobile apps, and many developers are finding that the typical approach to app design and development just aren’t cutting it. After spending time on design documents and wireframes, implementation does not always go as planned, simply due to lack of understanding of which designs will really work with AR.

Even attempts to jump right to code with a prototype and then iterate do not pan out well in some cases. Design and development teams need to place more focus on how to increase usability and how to capture and direct the user.

An example of how to do this is to spend more time on wireframing, but with the use of cardboard wireframes where user interactions with the app are acted out. This new approach to mobile app design and development may take some getting used to, but in time, an efficient process can be hammered out.

In the meantime, be sure to seek out advice from a team that has deep knowledge in the mobile app space, so you can be confident you are taking the right approach. And remember, it is ok if you stumble a bit along the way—as long as you learn from your mistakes.

We believe the AR mobile app market will continue to grow, with a full-scale explosion dependent on one critical factor—the device. Users have fun with AR technology, but when most are still interacting through a handheld device, it will limit your reach.

The true explosion will come when items such as glasses are widely available, making an augmented reality seamlessly and magically appear before the user’s eyes. If you want a piece of this pie, you need to have your AR mobile app ready to go, so you can capitalize on these streamlined devices as soon as they hit the mainstream.