The rise and rise of augmented reality

13 September 2016 by Sam Wiltshire

A month or so ago, a little app called Pokemon Go was released and promptly took over the world. At least, that's what it seems like, as at times, it's been impossible to avoid headlines talking about the app.

But while the hype might be a little exhausting, it's not entirely unjustified. According to one analysis, Pokemon Go was installed on more than five per cent of Android phones in the US within a week of release, while other studies have suggested it's activity outpaced the likes of Tinder and even Twitter.

Whatever its merits as a game or a social tool, it's a great example of how 90s nostalgia has teamed up with cutting edge mobile technology to get people excited. And at the heart of Pokemon Go's success is its innovative use of augmented reality (AR) technology.

Introducing augmented reality to the world

For many, Pokemon Go will be the first real experience they've had of AR, and it's a great way of illustrating to people what it's all about.

Essentially, the technology uses a device's camera and screen to overlay digital images on top of a real-world background. Or, as many people around the world are seeing it at the moment, it means you can hold up your phone and see a Charmander in the street, or a Pidgey pecking around on your desk.

But while taking gaming into the real world is one obvious example of what AR is capable of, it's really just the tip of the iceberg. As camera and processing technology improves, it's become possible to create ever-more complex solutions that use this, and they're set to be familiar sights everywhere from the shop front to the factory floor.

One new advocate of AR is Apple chief executive Tim Cook, who told investors recently that Pokemon Go has demonstrated how great the technology can be.

"We have been and continue to invest in AR in the long run," he said. "We'll see whether it's the next computing platform, but regardless it will be huge."

Transforming the retail sector

One early use case for AR that's starting to gain a lot of traction is the retail sector. This can allow consumers to get a much clearer idea of what they're buying and help them make better-informed decisions - as well as making the shopping experience that bit more exciting.

Fashion retailers are among those that have been quick to embrace the technology - and they're doing it on a much bigger scale than a five-inch smartphone screen.

Topshop, for example, has been offering 'virtual dressing rooms' in some of its stores for several years now. This consists of a large screen on which shoppers can see what clothes would look like on them, without going into a fitting room.

But it's not just on large in-store installations where AR is making an impact. It can also help firms boost their e-commerce performance by allowing customers to see what products would look like in their homes.

IKEA, for instance, combines AR with traditional print catalogues by allowing consumers to scan items from the page using their phones, then virtually place them in their room. According to the firm, 70 per cent of people don't really know how big their home is, and as a result, 14 per cent of people have bought a poorly-sized piece of furniture.

Mattias Jöngard, the retailer's global communication integration manager, explained: "The technology or the functions themselves are not are not really the driving force. Rather, it’s how can it add value to our consumers?"

The future of the technology

Many AR applications so far have still been testing the water of what the technology is capable of, and in the future, we can expect it to be used far more widely, in many different sectors.

Manufacturing, for example, is poised to embrace AR technology, in particular combining it will tools such as virtual reality (VR) and even wearables. While consumer-focused products such as Google Glass have never really quite taken off in the way some early adopters hoped, these type of devices are perfectly placed to assist on the factory floor.

Indeed, November 2015 figures from PwC show almost three-quarters of US manufacturers (72.5 per cent) anticipate that AR/VR tools will be at least somewhat important in the next three years, with potential applications for the technology including product design, real-time access to data, and information, and safety and skills training.

"VR/AR are ushering in a new age of efficiencies, connectivity and mobility which, for manufacturers who adopt the technologies well, offer new opportunities to compete among their peers in the US but also globally," PwC said.

Elsewhere, the automotive sector is also turning to the technology, with applications ranging from projecting car and road information onto the windscreen to helping walk owners though basic maintenance procedures.

Therefore, it's clear that using a smartphone to catch Pikachu in the park is just the start for an AR-enhanced future. And now so many people have seen what the technology can do, you can be sure they'll be demanding more from it.


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