Augmented reality (AR) has been one of the hot topics in the mobile apps space for some time, but the technology has yet to cross-over into the mainstream.
While the growth of apps has been driven by the ever increasing capabilities of handsets, delivering a compelling AR experience places much higher demands on hardware than almost all other app types – high-performance gaming and multimedia perhaps being the exception.
But as devices become more capable, and with growing interest from developers, this may be about to change.
“Many people have preconceived notions about augmented reality and its capabilities and are sceptical when it comes to the future; I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them had never really tried a mobile AR experience,” Trak Lord, director of marketing for metaio, told Mobile Apps Briefing.
“Our greatest challenge overall is to continue to improve the technology, continue to show people the real possibilities, to focus on the present instead of the distant future, and most importantly to make the process of using augmented reality more intuitive and an overall natural experience,” he said.
Real world needs
According to Lord, the developers who are succeeding in creating AR apps “are doing so because they’re very good at identifying needs and problems that AR can solve, and being very diligent about reaching out to companies and organisations that can benefit from adding AR to their projects.”
AR is potentially applicable to apps across a range of categories, including both consumer and business-to-business offerings. “Real estate apps, pre-sales tools, in-store and point-of-sale experiences, artistic or creative installations visible only through a smartphone – examples such as these benefit from merging the virtual and the real,” he suggested.
Potential growth areas for the future include publishing – “the publishing industry is full of opportunity, offering opportunities to have regular, monthly AR content to enhance both editorial and advertising content in print” – and gaming.
Augmented reality has also been used by non-traditional app developers, looking to explore the possibilities the technology has to offer. “We’ve seen a large adoption by designers and artists that add augmentations to their works and exhibits, adding a truly immersive element to the overall experience of their art,” Lord said.
But the role of the developer in the value chain is an important one. “We try to foster our developer community as much as possible, because they’re going to be the ones providing the content and devising the stellar use cases that will drive user adoption,” Lord observed.
According to the executive, hardware optimisation is a “first” for delivering augmented reality apps, to ensure that what users see is “smooth, robust, natural and intuitive.”
“The standout use-cases and most importantly useful applications will drive adoption more than any marketing gimmick or promotion. But in order for that potential ‘killer app’ to be useful, the hardware and software must be working together to ensure the experience remains unbroken,” he said.
metaio has been working with companies such as ARM, Intel, Nvidia, ST-Ericsson and TI to deliver this optimised experience, in order to ensure that silicon platforms are optimised before they reach end-user devices. “We need the hardware – the handset and the chipset manufacturers – to start preparing mobile devices for next-generation AR,” Lord continued.
A potential opportunity is presenting itself through the take-up of tablet devices, due to the larger screens these devices feature.
“As a culture, we’ve always appreciated bigger screens for experiencing visual content – look at movie theatres and televisions. But a tablet is no different than a smartphone in that the experience can always be improved if the device is optimised for AR. And we’re seeing a lot more of that recently,” he said.
metaio was founded in 2003, building on research in augmented reality dating back to 1999. “We’re not a software company, a telecom giant, a search engine or anything else – we’re an augmented reality tech company, with a dedicated roadmap and a commitment to cultivating both the tech and the industry. We’ve been doing this for 10 years, and we’ll be doing it for another 10,” Lord said.
The company does “a lot” of outreach to the developer community, including “constantly” working on projects. It offers a free software development kit which enables unlimited development and app deployment to iOS and Android, with documentation and support; and has its own app, junaio, to enable developers to deploy cloud-based AR content.
“We monitor the internet chatter on social channels and forums to get direct feedback from our developers on working with our tools, and we host our own support forums where developers can engage with each other, share troubleshooting and collaborate. When a developer launches an app or a cool project, we’re right there supporting and promoting them on our channels,” he said.
To date, as far as mobile is concerned, the company has focused on iOS and Android, although Lord said that with recent developments from Microsoft in the mobile space “it makes more sense to investigate that as a potential third platform,” he observed. However, that does not appear to be a priority for the near term – “for the time being we’re concentrating on ensuring that our Android and iOS software is the best out there,” Lord noted.