2018 will be a big year for augmented reality – but 2021 will be bigger

Augmented reality is about to have its biggest year yet in 2018, with some major stars aligning in recent months.

The tech, which overlays digital information onto the viewer’s physical environment, has been popularised by the likes of Pokémon GO. But AR already goes much deeper, and is poised to boom in 2018 thanks to recent developments and launches from AppleGoogleFacebook, and Snapchat amongst others.

While augmented reality is a huge buzzword right now, mass adoption won’t happen for a couple of years as developers get to grips with new access and ecosystems. Despite the buzz around virtual reality (VR), augmented reality is where the money is. Why? It’s all about numbers rather than demand – the number of VR units in the world currently sits around 82 million, but with augmented reality tech found in most smartphones, AR units in the world peak at over three billion.

With that many devices already in people’s hands, you have a nice recipe for innovation and disruption in several sectors. Depending on who you ask, the AR industry is worth between $30–162 billion.

Pokemon GO (Niantic / Pokemon Company)

So what’s the big deal with AR? 

The future of AR is open now that the big guns have unveiled their platforms – Apple’s ARKit, Google’s ARCore, and Snapchat Lens Studio – allowing developers to create their own augmented reality apps and features. Already we have virtual tape measures on your phone and photo-altering filters, but expect to see more tools and layers in coming months and years – like seeing directions to where the nearest defibrillator is in medical emergencies.

Virtual reality still has a huge part to play in the future – gaming and education will benefit – but the hefty price tag for high-end devices and consumer expectations versus reality are powerful detractors that will slow adoption of VR. 

Create your own AR filters in Snapchat's new Lens Studio software (Snap Inc)

The issue for many AR technologists and consumers is the need to view the added graphics through a screen, which can detract from being in the moment. Fast forward to when smart contact lenses arrive (Google is already working on a pair that can diagnose low blood sugar) and you have a whole different ball game.

The near future of augmented reality

Smart lenses are a while off, and they might not be the holy grail of AR if Magic Leap – a secretive startup based away from Silicon Valley in Florida – has anything to do with things.

Magic Leap One headset (Magic Leap)

Magic Leap are working on mixed reality. Instead of a whole new virtual world, the user has a see-through visor where information can be added so it appears to be floating – like if VR and AR had a baby and removed all the boundaries.

After years of teasing the tech, the company has finally announced that the Magic Leap One Creator Edition is coming in 2018 for developers, sending shockwaves through the industry. The initial hardware offering consists of a small computer, powering a pair of goggles that the user wears. If Magic Leap is half as good as the videos they put out, and price point depending, it might just fly off the shelves.

The evolving industry

Across MR and AR, the advertising and start-up world are salivating for more space where they can personally target and use data to retarget users. Advertisers could soon start using eye-tracking capabilities to determine interest levels – something many aren’t happy about because of the invasive potential repercussions.

A short film by Keiichi Matsuda called ‘HyperReality’ sums this up well, depicting a world where “physical and virtual realities have merged, and the city is saturated in media”. The video is a stark reminder that with great power, comes great responsibility.

Whether we get the AR or MR we desire or deserve, the technology we see and use today will improve with time and as new players come into the market. According to data from RetailPerceptions, 40% of people would pay more if they could test in AR first. Expect retail to be first-movers and innovators in the space, as they have the most to gain. Already we are seeing great apps and services from IKEA Place, letting you plonk digital furniture into your living room, to Specsavers’ try-them-on glasses AR tool.

The future of AR, as with most new technologies, will go down one of two roads – everyday usage that becomes invisible, or a nice-to-have technology that never took off. I suspect the former thanks to a) investment levels and b) the consumer interest and hype around companies like Magic Leap.

2018 is the year that AR will stretch out into new direction, bringing a lot more people into the game. But instant success is not assured – building revenue takes time, and it will take time to determine which AR platform takes the market share. Only when revenue looks good will the investment cycle truly begin, so while the investment begins now, the real developments are set to happen more towards 2021.

Paul Armstrong, Evening Standard, Tech, 09 January 2018