Augmented reality technology has seen unprecedented growth in 2020. Commercial use of the technology has exploded due to its use by market leaders like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. According to MarketsandMarkets, the market for AR technology is worth $15.3 billion. It’s worth exploring the different avenues and trends that drive the surging augmented reality market. By the end of 2020, AR active devices were estimated to rise to 598 million units and are projected to grow to 1.73 billion by 2024.
Trend #1: Mobile AR: Apple ARKit 4, Google ARCore
Apple has recently released ARKit 4, the latest version of its open source augmented reality development tools. Google’s competing ARCore technology is also making great strides to keep up in the industry. Since their introduction in 2017, these tools have helped developers ease into the AR market. Because of greater app support, AR-capable devices and their users have dramatically increased.
Since 2017, Apple has revealed additional updates to ARKit, such as ARKit 2.0 at WWDC 2018, ARKit 3.0 at WWDC 2019, and finally ARKit 4.0 at WWDC 2020. Some of the newest advances related to ARKit 4.0 include location anchors, new depth API, and improved face tracking. This allows Apple’s ARKit developers to tap into the power of the latest iPhones’ LiDAR hardware.
Meanwhile, Google’s ARCore is innovating with the introduction of publicly-made Street View photos. As long as an Android user has an ARCore-capable smartphone, Google will accept submissions for Street View photos. Although these must meet certain quality guidelines, this demonstrates that ARCore has improved enough that Google feels confident that smartphones can take the photos necessary to incorporate with Google Maps and to add these images alongside photos taken by more specialized equipment.
ARCore falls short of ARKit in terms of motion capture, simultaneous use of front and back cameras, and tracking multiple faces. The Apple App Store also has far more AR-capable apps than the Google Play Store, with over 2,000 apps available to users. However, ARCore is more widely accessible considering the larger global market share Android has over iOS. However, this varies by region. For example, iOS has a larger market share than Android in the United States in 2020.
According to ARtillery Intelligence, ARKit devices significantly outnumber ARCore devices. In 2020, there were 1185 ARKit devices, with ARCore only having 633 million devices. In terms of active users, the numbers are vastly different. ARKit has 950 million active users, while ARCore only has 122 million.
Trend #2: AR In Shopping and Retail
Giving consumers a virtual option to shop has been an important trend for many retailers, such as American Apparel, Uniqlo, Lacoste, Kohls, Sephora. Others have made virtual fitting rooms a reality for their customers. This allows customers to gain a try-before-you-buy experience from home. This is especially important due to the way social distancing policies affect retail during the COVID-19 pandemic. AR is in a great position to resolve this problem.
This doesn’t just apply to apparel. IKEA’s app allows customers to see what furniture and other products might look like in their own homes using AR technology. The possibilities don’t stop at home on consumers’ cell phones. While in-store, smart mirrors and RFID tags open up new avenues for product suggestions to customers.
Virtual fitting room technology isn’t going away anytime soon. Its projected global market is expected to hit $10 billion by 2027. Although the pandemic has required AR as a solution for customers who cannot come to an in-person store, the advantages, convenience, and growing acceptance of virtual fitting room technology indicate that it will remain popular for years to come.
Augmented reality’s appeal to customers has increased due to its improving accuracy, precision, and ability to approximate to the real world. By utilizing lighting conditions around the user, advanced facial recognition, and personalized advice, AR retail experiences are set to radically change the consumer shopping experience.
According to the 2020 IBM U.S Retail Index report, 41% of respondents were interested in trying a virtual fitting room to enhance their shopping experience, while 18% had answered that they had already tried the technology. As AR technology matures, the comfort of consumers will only increase.
Trend #3: Utilizing AR For Navigation
With more bandwidth and control over an interior environment, the advantages offered by AR for indoor navigation are clear. There is a wide range of tools that can be used to enhance this experience at different scales, such as Bluetooth beacons, ceiling antennas, and QR codes. However, in cases where a robust Wi-Fi network already exists, Apple’s iPhone AR is good enough to handle indoor positioning by using Wi-Fi RF patterns.
MobiDev’s AR demo of indoor navigation demonstrates in practice the potential of the technology.
ARKit- and ARCore-based applications aid consumers with finding their way through airports, shopping malls, and other locations.
In-store navigation stands to improve greatly from advances in AR technology. This can help customers find exactly what they are looking for while shopping in-person.
Google’s AR Live View walking directions for Google Maps has improved since it first entered beta in August 2019. In October 2020, Google announced several new features to improve the AR Live View experience outdoors. Among these were the ability to overlay landmarks and an expansion of Live View to more cities. Integration between Live View and Google Maps location sharing is also being rolled out to consumers in the near future. The elevation is also an important aspect of the process, which improves Live View’s performance in hilly locations like San Francisco.
Also, in ARKit 4 Apple has introduced a powerful tool for outdoor AR navigation called Geo Tracking, which utilizes street view to ensure the best positioning.
Trend #4: Augmented Reality Relies On Artificial Intelligence
The role of artificial intelligence in augmented reality cannot be understated. The high demands placed upon augmented reality software simply cannot rely solely on human programming to display virtual objects against a real-world backdrop. Neural networks and machine learning can accomplish these tasks with far higher efficiency and can improve augmented reality experiences drastically.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence cannot function without a strong team of data science engineers. Analysis and collection of training data are vital for the success of a machine learning program designed to support AR software. The engineers also need to carefully fine-tune and optimize the model before integration and deployment.
AI can also play a supportive role alongside AR. For example, automatic suggestions can be given to in-person shoppers at a store using an AR experience on their smartphone. These suggestions would be driven by chatbots powered by natural language processing (NLP) technologies.
AR-driven virtual fitting room technology would not be possible without AI support. AI plays a vital role in analyzing a user’s facial features and contours, as well as the rest of their body if necessary.
Deloitte Research concludes that augmented reality and artificial intelligence will transform the traditional healthcare business model by offering AR/MR-enabled hands-free solutions and AI-based diagnostic tools.
Trend #5: Remote Assistance and Virtual Manuals
Although only 7% of the workforce in the United States has access to telework options, 37% of U.S jobs have the potential of being possible via telework. However, according to the Brookings Institution, about half of employed US adults work from home. Despite these discrepancies, it is clear that telework has increased dramatically since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Brookings Institution also predicts that current trends of telework will continue long after the pandemic has passed.
Because of the increase in telework, new solutions are needed to maintain the efficiency of certain professions that formerly operated in-person. IT computer repair is a great example. Augmented reality can allow IT technicians to give guidance to customers using on-screen directions. As the customer holds their smartphone camera up to a computer in need of service, the IT technician can draw over the screen to direct the customer to certain points of interest.
MobiDev’s AR demo video showcases this technology in action.
Remote assistance via an AR experience can be built with WebRTC. This allows for both parties to connect to one another and see the same AR experience via a peer-to-peer connection. This is essential to make sure that the video is sent in real-time without causing server load challenges.
AR-based virtual user manuals provide details on a vehicle dashboard or give workers insights into the factory machinery.
The demo below presents a virtual user instruction for a coffee machine.
Trend #6: Augmented Reality in the Automotive Industry
Augmented reality has had a large impact on the automotive industry. One of the more clear applications of this technology is through the use of heads-up displays (HUDs) which consumers will be familiar with in their favorite video games and movies. However, AR HUDs will serve a practical purpose for drivers that will allow them to process information that supports their view of the road, rather than obstructs it.
The most important practical application of an AR HUD for drivers is safety. The HUD can make drivers aware of potential hazards that might have gone unnoticed without posing a distraction or obstructing their view of the road. Nissan’s Invisible-to-Visible (I2V) technology already uses AR and AI to make drivers aware of potential hazards, such as nearby objects. The system can also redirect a driver’s focus to the road if their attention begins to wander.
Aside from AR’s applications for driving, AR can be used for automotive marketing. BMW and Accenture designed an AR application that allows customers to experience a new car in their driveway without having to go to the dealership. They can also see what the virtual car looks like in different colors.
A particularly interesting case of AR development in the automotive industry is Volvo’s use of the Varjo XR-1 mixed reality headset to display virtual objects to a driver while on the road. This has applications for driver’s education, as it could be used to prepare drivers to stop for virtual hazards that appear in front of them. This technology can also be used to showcase new vehicles to customers.
Trend #7: Portable Augmented Reality
Augmented reality is relatively convenient on a smartphone, but in its current form, it isn’t nearly as convenient for shoppers and everyday tech consumers. Holding up a cell phone can be relatively distracting and also takes the immersion out of an AR experience. AR experiences through a headset are vastly superior to viewing simulated objects through a smartphone’s camera.
However, headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Varjo XR-1 are far too bulky and expensive to be used for non-enterprise users in their current forms. Although progress is slow, the industry is gradually working its way toward treating AR headsets as a ‘wearable’ technology in the same category as smartwatches and earbuds.
Once AR headsets become comfortable, affordable, and socially accepted, AR’s importance and demand will skyrocket. Multiple companies are developing AR glasses that would be more feasible for a consumer to use. Apple Glass is an alleged consumer-focused AR glasses project that may be released in the next few years. ARtillery Intelligence expects that the market for this technology will grow from $822 million to $13.4 billion by 2024.
AR glasses may not be here just yet. It may take several years before they can have a major stake in the market. Once they do, however, AR glasses will be a major driver of the industry.
Trend #8: Augmented Reality Events
Augmented reality can greatly enhance in-person and virtual events such as career fairs and sports events. This can be done via dedicated apps or through WebAR solutions. AR events can provide unique experiences to attendees, as well as provide them with a way of interacting despite restrictions like quarantine.
AR-Powered Career Fairs
Traditional career fairs are wholly in-person experiences or are mediated through Zoom web-conferencing. However, AR-powered career fairs such as the Pot Noodle Virtual Careers Fair have been developed by Aircards in collaboration with GradBay.
The original career fair was canceled due to public health restrictions because of COVID-19. The result of the project produced an immersive, AR career fair experience that anyone could go to by pointing their smartphone at a large, flat, outdoor space.
Videos can be seen on displays on the virtual tables that describe more about that particular graduate career and business.
On top of it all, the experience is powered by WebAR, requiring no app downloads to function. This makes WebAR more accessible to users which can be critical for marketing purposes.
Being the largest platform, WebAR, which has 3.04 billion compatible devices, is still in the early stages but powerful shifts are already moving brands in its direction.
AR In Sports Events
WebAR is also being utilized in the sports industry by companies like 8th Wall. Experiences delivered through QR codes can enhance marketing strategies through interactive AR content. AR can also be used to create holograms of sports players that consumers can interact with within their own homes.
Virtual reality has been tried in this space, but it fails to provide a better experience than actually going to watch a match in person. Instead, augmented reality has taken the lead because of its accessibility. AR experiences are available on more accessible hardware like smartphones, whereas VR is restricted to expensive and bulky headsets.
Major League Baseball in the United States is exploring its options to apply its innovative Hawk-Eye baseball tracking and analytics data to AR experiences. By having precise data on where players and the ball are on the field at all times during a match, AR delivery in a virtual space can be accomplished with a greater degree of accuracy and realism using this kind of data. It seems likely that data from other sports such as soccer, American football, golf, and others could use this same strategy to provide AR experiences to fans.
Trend #9: AR In Remote Education
Educational institutions have been some of the hardest hit by social distancing policies in the face of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. However, augmented reality has a number of applications that can help improve the learning experience for e-learning students. Wikitude has created an app called Ai.R-Cord. This app is aimed at helping elementary school students learn concepts by using augmented reality experiences.
The potential of augmented reality to increase student focus on course content while at home cannot be understated. The technology also makes learning modes at home more diverse by expanding visual content for more visual-focused learners. This can help break up monotonous video conferencing and recorded lecture note-taking to improve student engagement.
One of the primary advantages of augmented reality in the educational space is the ability for a student to inspect a model from many different angles on their own. By moving around a virtual object or rotating it in space, they can better examine and understand certain concepts. Most importantly, it allows students the benefit of at-home experiential learning. This kind of learning is more likely to be remembered and understood by students compared to other methods.
Trend #10: LiDAR
LiDAR technology is seeing more support on consumer devices such as the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max, as well as the iPad Pro 2020. The trend of LiDAR being used on the scale of consumer devices opens up a wide range of possibilities for augmented reality technologies in 2021.
LiDAR’s incorporation into Apple’s product arsenal began with the iPad Pro in 2020. However, now that the scanner has been incorporated into the iPhone 12 Pro, consumers now have access to one of the most advanced portable AR solutions out there.
One of the most important opportunities that LiDAR provides is people occlusion. This allows for more immersive AR experiences by allowing people in the frame to occlude virtual objects. Onboarding, or preparing a scene to be populated with virtual objects, is another important step in AR that LiDAR vastly improves upon. This allows for virtual objects to be placed in a scene much more quickly as data from the sensor can be processed more quickly.
LiDAR’s incorporation into more portable platforms again suggests the development of more portable and comfortable head-mounted AR devices like eyeglasses.
Future of Augmented Reality
With AR’s value in the market climbing up to $25 billion by 2025, the future of augmented reality is bright. This growth will only continue for years to come, determined by investments from the business domains and spheres in the following chart:
Gaming has the highest share of the industry’s revenue and will remain a relevant driver of augmented reality. Practical uses of AR such as those used by the healthcare and engineering industries will also gain traction.
Real estate and corporate campus navigation will benefit from AR solutions and interactive walkthroughs. These can use mixed or augmented reality environments. Mobile AR still remains a vital tool.
Successful projects begin with a business need or problem that can be solved with a technological solution. Besides the above trends, augmented reality can be applied in many other business areas, industries, and in combination with other innovative technologies. A number of practical applications of mobile AR demonstrate that the future of augmented reality is here and now.