The Mainstreaming of Augmented Reality: A Brief History
The launch of Pokémon Go this summer was a huge success—both for the gaming industry and for Augmented Reality (AR). After launching in July 2016, the game hit its peak in August of almost 45 million users. Despite the fact that Niantic, the American software development company that developed Pokémon Go, has failed to maintain high levels of engagement on the game (its current user base is now 30 million users), the phenomenon demonstrated AR’s potential to be adopted by mainstream culture.
In a previous piece I discussed why some AR apps are destined to be forgotten as gimmicks, and what mistakes marketers should avoid when trying to deploy them. But it is just as important to ask: What has contributed to AR’s increasing success?
Aside from complex technological advances (e.g., mobile devices are now powerful enough to handle AR software and tracking systems), three other elements have enabled the mass adoption of AR apps: 1) meaningful content, 2) convincing and realistic interaction of the virtual with the physical environment, and 3) unique value that goes beyond what other technologies deliver.
Pokémon Go hits all of these targets, and it offers useful direction for designing future AR games. But it also has implications for areas outside of entertainment, such as marketing, fashion, tourism, and retail, where commercial AR apps have already been increasing in numbers and popularity. This growing presence of AR results from a long trajectory of development that has been full of hits and misses. Understanding this timeline is crucial, as it highlights the value that AR can offer in various contexts.
Phase 1: Attention-grabbing early efforts
The first AR technology was developed in 1968 at Harvard when computer scientist Ivan Sutherland (named the “father of computer graphics”) created an AR head-mounted display system. In the following decades, lab universities, companies, and national agencies further advanced AR for wearables and digital displays. These early systems superimposed virtual information on the physical environment (e.g., overlaying a terrain with geolocal information), and allowed simulations that were used for aviation, military and industrial purposes.
The first commercial AR application appeared in 2008. It was developed for advertising purposes by German agencies in Munich. They designed a printed magazine ad of a model BMW Mini, which, when held in front of a computer’s camera, also appeared on the screen. Because the virtual model was connected to markers on the physical ad, a user was able to control the car on the screen and move it around to view different angles, simply by manipulating the piece of paper. The application was one of the first marketing campaigns that allowed interaction with a digital model in real time.
Other brands started adopting this idea of situating content on a screen and having consumers interact with it through physical tracking markers. We start seeing more advanced versions by brands such as National Geographic in 2011, which showed rare or extinct animal species as if they were walking through a shopping mall; Coca-Cola in 2013, which also simulated environmental problems, such as ice melting right beside you in a shopping mall; and Disney in 2011, which showed cartoon characters on a large screen in Times Square interacting with people on the street.
In each of these examples, the AR technology was used to engage customers at events or in public spaces. These types of displays aren’t always scalable, as they require considerable investment—but we still see them today. For instance, Skoda ran a campaign in 2015, placing an AR mirror in a Victoria railway station in London, so that people passing by could customize a car and then see themselves driving it on a large screen.
Phase 2: Trying on products at home
Simulating digital products, so that they interact with movements in the real world in real time (usually through paper printouts), was a popular approach to AR in the early 2010s, especially for watches and jewelry. This technology let people virtually “try on” a product. Even the Apple watch was available for a similar virtual try-on. However, the task of printing out and cutting a special paper model so that it could fit one’s finger or wrist has always been somewhat clunky, and it requires some effort from the consumer.
Much more successful apps are those that can offer a more seamless experience. Trying on products virtually, by instant face recognition, has been one of the most successful uses of AR in the commercial context so far, and make-up companies have been leading this use. Predecessors of this technology were websites that overlayed make-up on an uploaded photo or avatar. But AR mirrors, developed by agencies like Holition, ModiFace and Total Immersion, have allowed customers to overlay make-up on themselves in real-time. The technology behind this is highly sophisticated, as it requires adapting virtual make-up to an individual’s actual face. In order to create this personalization of virtual content—and make it seem real—the software uses 2D modeling technology and advanced face-tracking techniques. The effect delivers a highly perceived value: seeing one’s face augmented with make-up not only offers a more convenient and playful way to try it on, but also allows consumers to assess looks that they would not have been able to create themselves or to try on combinations that they would not have thought of. That can’t be delivered by simply uploading a photo to an app.
And this type of technology continues to advance. London-based AR agency Holition and agency Coty recently launched an AR app for the make-up company Rimmel, which lets a consumer scan the make-up of another person or an image and then immediately try that same look on his or her face. It takes the experience of look creation to a whole new level. Not surprisingly, the fashion industry has touted the technology, already picking up on its practicality, and consumer ratings for this type of AR apps keep increasing.
Phase 3: A broader range of uses
Aside from try-ons, a rich body of research also shows that AR can be incredibly valuable for exploring various cultural, historical, and geographic aspects of an environment. This type of app typically operates on the basis of a user pointing his mobile device towards an object or a site, in order to see superimposed content on the screen.
Apps developed for tourism purposes started appearing in the 2000s, but initially they were predominantly created in university labs. They’ve only started to become more widely used in recent years, thanks to technological advancement and a better understanding of the consumer experience. For example, the Museum of London has an app that shows you how the particular London street you’re standing in used to look in the past—you just have to point your phone camera at it for the augmented version to appear on your screen. Similarly, apps designed for museum contexts let visitors get more information about famous paintings by overlaying a description over it on smartphone screens in real time. Then there’s also Google Translate, an app that lets you instantly translate a text, whether it’s on a sign or elsewhere, into a language you can read. And Google Sky Map can help you identify stars and planets if you just point your phone camera view toward the sky.
Research I conducted with Professor Yvonne Rogers and Dr. Ana Moutinho from University College London and with the English National Opera, suggests that AR apps could offer innovative support to cultural institutions as well. We observed how opera singers and theatrical make-up artists would take to virtual try-on apps: the AR mirror assisted singers as they were getting into character and building their roles; and make-up artists used it as a helpful tool for developing the artistic looks for each character. Visitors also interacted with the mirror to see what they’d look like as one of the operatic characters.
Each of these examples demonstrate how AR has distinctly evolved to complement and transform the way users experience products and their surroundings. And it will continue to advance as people come to expect more from it. Recent research I conducted with Dr. Chris Brauer of Goldsmiths, University of London, explored how this new generation of digital technologies are changing consumer experiences. Wearables and the Internet of Things have made consumers expect highly customized solutions and instant access to detailed personal data. And AR is reinforcing consumers’ appetite for compelling and creative visualizations of content.
However, our research has also shown that despite the increased use of such technologies, consumers are not yearning for the robotic digitization of their everyday lives. Rather, they want technologies that weave themselves seamlessly into their activities. Consumers expect their digital experience to be more human and empathic, to be filled with emotional content, to surprise them with serendipitous occurrences, to allow for reciprocity and interactivity, and to offer the option of personalized adaptations. As designers and marketers continue to craft AR experiences, it will become crucial to acquire better understanding which areas of human lives can be visually enhanced.
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