Will Augmented Reality Explode Following the Latest Boom of Projects?

Tech companies and brands seem to be increasing their use

Adobe hopes its platform "Project Aero” that’s now in beta will democratize AR. Adobe
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Augmented reality isn’t just for games anymore. Adobe, Amazon, Apple—they all rolled out AR-building capabilities over the last few months for use in everything from brands to shopping to art. And that’s just the A’s.

Adobe, for example, debuted Project Aero in October, a beta version of an AR-creation platform it hopes could help democratize the emerging format to become as ubiquitous as Photoshop. Then there’s Amazon’s AR shopping app, Google’s ARCore kit for Android devices and Apple’s ARKit for iPhones and iPads. (Apple CEO Tim Cook even tweeted about an AR app in Germany for learning about historical places.)

As some of the largest players in tech begin expanding their tools and kits, they’re hoping anyone—and, they hope, everyone—will want to build AR experiences for entertainment, advertising and other industries. And the scale of AR-equipped devices—think 2.1 billion smartphones—seems to be making bets a bit more attractive to brands looking for audiences. For example, Adidas is testing AR in retail locations to let customers view a larger variety of sneakers. Fossil is using AR to allow users to try different watch bands, and this month Bose is debuting an AR podcast in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Red Bull’s AR app brings a mountain biking competition to a user’s living room. Even YouTube recently ran AR ads in the World Series.

“We’ve been interested in this stuff for a really long time, and it’s now reached this cost equity and tool democratization kind of inflection point where it’s about to get ubiquitous,” said R. Luke DuBois, associate professor of integrated digital media at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. “We’re in that moment that film was in in the 1910s.”

AR ads are apparently effective. According to a study by Nielsen and AR/VR gaming engine Unity, results of a test on AR ads by QSR restaurants served within mobile gaming apps showed that brand awareness lifted 104 percent, while intent to visit a QSR in the next week increased by 180 percent. That’s 11 times the benchmark of 9.7 percent for awareness and 33 times higher than the 5.5 percent benchmark for intent.

All this is happening as VR companies are pivoting to AR. Jaunt in San Francisco recently announced plans to lay off a “significant” percentage of its VR staff as part of a refocus toward AR content. And the increased attention to AR could be good news for better content beyond much of the gimmicky early projects.

“Developers are still developing for a smartphone screen or PC screen,” said Tom Mainelli, IDC’s research director for gaming and AR/VR. “And nobody has really wrapped their head around what they can do when you take data or objects or any of the things off the screen and place them in the real world.”

More compelling storytelling is also on the way. Later this month, Within, a Los Angeles AR/VR startup, plans to release its first AR app, Wonderscope, which will include both free and paid in-app stories for kids. According to Within co-founder Chris Milk, several stories will be added through the end of 2018, with the first based on a variation of Little Red Riding Hood about a young, female inventor building a drone to plant flowers in her backyard. The second will be a title that tells nonfiction stories, including one about Hollywood’s first stunt woman and another about the first man to tightrope across Niagara Falls.

“You don’t say, ‘I’m going to see a movie projector,’” Milk said. “We all talk about these things as the tech that they are, rather than the art form that came out of the technology.”

Larger networks are also taking notice. After debuting its first AR app, Do Not Touch, earlier this year, Nickelodeon is developing an original animated AR and VR sitcom series called Meet the Voxels. It’s also working on an undisclosed project with Dreamscape.

“The days of sitting back and having just a straight, framed linear experience are potentially kind of moving away from us,” said Chris Young, svp of Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab.

And then there’s the AR and mixed-reality headset race. Weeks after Magic Leap’s first major developer conference, a Canadian AR headset company called North—which is backed by Amazon—debuted Alexa-powered AR glasses that actually look like normal glasses.

“Think of the commerce opportunities,” Cortney Harding, founder of the AR/VR agency Friends With Holograms, said of the North glasses. “The glasses could scan items and allow you to tap or say yes to order on Amazon, removing any layers of friction and driving retail further into the ground.”

This story first appeared in the November 5, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.