The Future of Digital Experiences: A Closer Look at Augmented Reality

21 November 2017

Digital experiences increasingly drive the realities that we live, work and play within. While we are all very familiar with browsing the web, shopping online and interacting with our friends, family and co-workers through various social channels, the future is even more immersive and compelling than we can even imagine. Within the next several years, what will seem like science fiction today will become the common expectation of nearly everyone. Think of how many technologies we interact with in our everyday lives - from mobile phones with worldwide GPS tracking to booking travel by talking to our Alexa-powered voice assistants. Any of these experiences would seem almost alien-like to someone even 20 or 30 years ago.

What drives this constant change? In a word, we do. Our expectations are guided by the experiences we have everyday. Heavy competition from companies around the world push these expectations further all the time. Consumers benefit from these experiences and clever companies recognize that the careful crafting and delivery of compelling digital experiences leads to measurable success.

At the most recent Apple event, a little noticed announcement was included among the headline-grabbing news surrounding the next iPhone. Tim Cook mentioned the official release of a framework called ARKit, which is Apple’s first significant foray into augmented reality. Included with the release of iOS 11, ARKit allows developers to finally create and deliver AR experiences that will truly change the way we see and interact with the physical world around us.

Augmented Reality is the combination of technologies seamlessly blended together to create an “overlay” on physical reality. The idea is to combine the real world with virtual content and interactions. Typically used on a smartphone or a tablet, users point their device at a spot in the real world and can see a combination of the world with virtual content overlaid above it. More interestingly, this content is fully interactive, meaning that it can be used for almost any purpose: playing games, conferencing with people who aren’t physically there in person, and more.

Once AR technology is more fully realized as part of the ARKit framework, any iOS device running a A9 or higher chipset (any iPhone 6s and higher) will be eligible for enhanced AR experiences. The result is that millions of devices will be able to access these experiences in just a couple of months from now. Google hasn’t been standing still in this space. The company’s answer to ARKit is called ARCore and it’s already available for Android devices like the Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy 7 running Android Nougat. Google is actively working now to expand the number of Android-compatible devices that can offer this kind of next generation digital experience.

In the coming weeks and months, there will literally be millions and millions of devices that can take advantage of this technology. The question quickly becomes which company can utilize augmented reality to offer more powerful and compelling digital experiences?

Consider these ideas:

  • Retailers looking to capitalize on the Black Friday phenomenon can build AR applications that showcase deals, allow consumers to pick the products they want, direct them to the closest physical location and then walk them, step-by-step, through the store to get the best deals showcased in the flyers and advertisements.
  • Furniture companies that can create AR applications that show how furniture would look in their customer’s actual rooms. IKEA is working on an application that would showcase their catalog, allow customers to drag-and-drop items right into their room and place an order for the products once they know it looks and fits perfectly.
  • Hospitals can build educational applications that superimpose blood vessels, skeletal structures and major organs onto a patient’s body to illustrate how complex medical procedures will be performed.
  • Sports teams can offer dynamic AR experiences for fans by highlight who is playing on the field, illustrate where the ball is and where it needs to be, while also providing real-time statistics. Retailers can offer discounts on in-game concessions and related scores and statistics can be displayed, speeding up the experience of waiting for time-outs to be done.
  • Retail Stores can offer significant new experiences in their physical spaces by allowing customers to browse the store using a tablet running an AR application - showing prices, customer reviews, complementary product recommendations, dynamic animations explaining how products works and other forms of additional information that will help them make informed buying decisions.
  • Automotive manufacturers and dealers can create AR experiences that allow customers to walk-around the car, truck, boat, RV or other vehicles as a kind of portable, virtual showroom.
  • Event management companies can use AR to help people find one another and important locations within the event space, like at a . Another would be helping customers navigate a complex space like an airport, shopping mall or office complex.
  • Custom product vendors can develop AR experiences that bring their customized products into their environment. This will offer customers a unique method of seeing how products may compliment their existing space.
  • Restaurants can use AR to better showcase what menu items are available by allowing customers to visually see food selections before ordering them.
  • Gaming applications exist throughout this concept. While Pokemon Go showed one application, imagine being able to play strategy and arcade platform games in your living room, back yard and at your friend's house.
  • Educational possibilities abound. Imagine science students learning about the solar system by walking through their classroom, seeing the relative sizes of planets, distances between them and context-specific information as they zoom in.

Virtual Reality

You would be forgiven if you thought that this sounds too good to be true or like another round of overpromise / underdeliver hype from technology vendors. After all, you likely remember the promise of a similar technology: virtual reality. In the mid-1990’s, a stream of movies and novels explored and popularized the idea of a fully immersive virtual world that we could disappear into thanks to a VR headset.

Virtual reality may have stumbled in the 1990s, but it is enjoying a significant resurgence recently with the introduction of VR choices from Sony (PlayStation VR), Facebook (Oculus) and HTC (Vive). Each of these systems are built around the notion of a head-mounted display, cameras that can map the user’s physical location in a room and a powerful processor to bring it all together. Virtual reality doesn't try to overlay the actual world, like AR does, but instead attempts to create a new reality seen only by the user.

While VR has many exciting opportunities, there are drawbacks. Even with today’s current generation of hardware, the performance of the experience is heavily dependent on powerful hardware, often well beyond the capabilities of even the latest smartphones. VR also requires physical space to be cleared out so that the cameras can track the user’s movement within that limited space (think of a family room with the coffee table removed).

Augmented Reality will be more successful in the short term for a number of reasons. First, with the critical mass of smartphones powerful enough to run AR applications happening within the next 12-18 months, the number of customers who can actually use AR will be undeniable to target. Secondly, the price of admission for AR is relatively low when compared to higher-end experiences like virtual reality headsets or platforms like Microsoft’s HoloLens.

While a number of interesting platforms will continue to be developed, the truth is that consumer-level AR is here now and represents the single most exciting technological shift since the web or mobile devices. Companies that recognize this and take action now have the advantage of a first market mover, differentiating themselves from their competition while amazing their customers.

My colleague, Brandon Rozelle, recently shared a fascinating look at how the commercial marketplace is essential to driving the ongoing evolution of augmented reality. I encourage you to give it a read.

Explore the exciting AR capabilities that Righpoint can offer your company today.

Brian Browning is Vice President, Digital Experience Solutions, at Rightpoint. Follow Brian on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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