In a 2016 New Yorker article, tech writer Om Malik quipped: “Augmented reality is the ‘boy who cried wolf’ of the post-internet world – it’s long been promised but has rarely been delivered in a satisfying way.” He went on to explore the possible implications of Niantic’s Pokémon Go, which had just rolled out in July 2016. It’s unlikely that Malik could have predicted that the AR mobile game would become lightning in a bottle, attracting some 232 million users.
Half a decade later, and Pokémon Go seems like a half-forgotten fever dream, which some might say supports Malik’s original assessment of AR as an over-hyped but ultimately underwhelming technology. Today’s numbers, however, tell a different story. The global AR market is expected to reach a valuation of more than $340bn by 2028, growing at a compound annual growth rate of a whopping 43.8% between this year and 2028.
Even with AR woven inconspicuously into the fabric of our lives already, many experts argue that perhaps the technological, sociological and economic landscape of our current moment offers more opportunities for innovation in mobile AR than ever before.
Smartify, Google Lens and the AR-aided retail revolution
The growth of AR on mobile has been significantly accelerated by the pandemic and its associated effects. With consumers around the world stuck at home, they consumed media and used their mobile devices more than ever before. In tandem with this shift, the world saw an influx of new mobile-enabled AR shopping and commerce capabilities. A May 2021 Deloitte report indicates that of the 1.5 billion global AR users, 100 million are already using AR to shop.
“We absolutely saw AR take off in major ways during the pandemic, particularly in response to retail and shopping, with virtual try-on experiences from previewing furniture and products in your home with everyday brands like Amazon to virtually trying on luxury fashion labels such as Gucci,” says Dr Helen Papagiannis, a leading AR influencer and author of the book Augmented Human. “Once a ‘nice-to-have’ feature, AR has quickly become an essential technology for retailers.”
A perhaps unexpected player branching into AR-driven commerce is Smartify, the popular AR app that enables users to interact with artwork in galleries and museums in real time. With a database of over 2.5 million pieces, the app can identify artwork in the real world and provide users with more information about the work on their mobile devices. And while the app’s primary objective is to surface information about art to its 2.5 million users, the company is investing in new commerce solutions.
But perhaps no company is leading the charge on AR retail and commerce trends so much as Google. In December, the tech titan launched two AR beauty tools that enable users to experiment to see what different cosmetics would look like on their own faces – or on a diverse range of models – while shopping for beauty products.
Meanwhile, Google Lens – the tool that enables users to snap a photo of something and find out what it is by dropping it into Google Search for real-time, image-led queries – has debuted new functionality that allows users to shop seamlessly from images or screenshots they take. Last month, the company announced that Google Photos will begin to prompt users with a suggestion to use Lens when screenshots are taken. “Imagine you’re scrolling through a social feed and you see a pair of shoes you like – you can screenshot that picture and then use Lens to identify them and find out where you can buy them,” says Adrian Tout, AR/Google Lens product partnerships lead at Google. Today, Lens can identify over 15bn objects – up from a billion just two years ago. It’s used more than 3bn times a month worldwide.
Creators will drive the AR of tomorrow
While numerous apps enable users to surface content from the physical world, many experts believe that user-generated content will be critical to unlocking greater potential for AR technology moving forward.
The growth of the creator economy has already been a key force in propelling existing AR mobile platforms. A quick scroll through the endless filters on Snapchat and Instagram Stories immediately evidences the proliferation of user-created content and the ways in which creators are driving the development of AR in the wild.
Other major players such as Google are investing deeply in the creator movement. “The biggest area to evolve will be content,” Tout says. “Content is king for visual commerce and it will be no different for 3D/AR.” Tout says there are a number of hurdles that the industry will need to navigate first “before 3D content creation is truly democratized”.
Marketing in the metaverse
Increasingly, experts see us hurtling ever-closer to a so-called metaverse, where physical and the digital realities are fully melded and a unified semi- or fully-virtual reality takes hold. “The real transformation will come when the challenges with AR headset optics are solved and the notion of an always-on digital overlay of the world becomes a reality,” says Alex Nelson, UX principle of future experiences at the BBC’s research and development branch. “The final remaining question is around who will own the AR metaverse – an always-present virtual world that maps on to the real one. This may seem like science fiction, but being able to present content that is specific to the location and context of the user is deeply compelling to both audiences and those racing to be the big players in AR.”
Nelson helped develop Civilisations AR, an immersive mobile app launched in 2018 that enables users to explore a range of exhibits and interact with famed artifacts in an up-close-and-personal manner.
And Nelson is certainly on to something; the fusion of the physical and digital worlds is a shift that could upend marketing and commerce to an unprecedented degree. In fact, it may not be a far-off reality. “I truly believe we’re on the brink of a new web, a ‘spatial web’, as Gabriel René put it, where 3D will become the standard format,” says Luis Bravo Martins. Martins is chief marketer at KIT-AR, a company aiming to help reduce manufacturing errors and waste on the shop floor with AR and AI solutions that allow manufacturers to visualize correct procedures overlaid on their equipment.
Martin suggests that marketers may face some of the biggest challenges of all in a metaverse. If users are increasingly interacting with the real world through filters, brands will compete to overlay their messages – and their reality – on to the physical world. “That will change outdoor advertising completely, as suddenly, in the same space, [users] can see different and even competing ads. AR will allow [users] to literally recreate this world digitally, so how will your brand help them do that? Bringing our present day web’s content to the metaverse won’t be possible, as we’ll lose screens and add voice and gesture commands.”