Augmented Reality (AR) doesn’t have a killer app. But it doesn’t need one. And the lessons from virtual reality (VR) need not apply.
Using apps as the benchmark for AR confuses three different things:
- The platforms for viewing AR, such as your iPad or a pair of Hololens glasses
- The affordances of AR when used in other systems, such as a WebAR widget on a website
- The experiences provided by the above. These experiences will, I think, often confuse the role that ‘apps’ will play
I got to thinking about this by a question posed by Josh Naylor on Twitter about AR apps with ‘replayability’:
The question was a good temperature check of the current ‘state’ of AR (or at least how the Twitterverse sees it).
As Josh points out, it sure SEEMS like there isn’t that much out there. They all feel like prototypes. They don’t have ‘stickiness’. My friends aren’t telling me about some hot new game I should play.
Secret Oops!, launched this week on Apple Arcade, is probably the type of ‘AR app’ that Josh would want to see. Something we can send to a friend to show them what ‘replayable AR’ might look like.
Now, being in Apple Arcade, it’s probably meant to have limited shelf life. Apple Arcade is more like a buffet than the main dish. And so I don’t expect it to rise to level that Josh alludes to.
But this all assumes that ‘replayability’ is the right question.
The Perils of Virtual Reality
I’ve been confounded by how much the language and experiences of VR bleed over into AR.
I understand why it happens: the tool sets are mostly the same (from 3D content to volumetric video, from Unity to Unreal, it all SEEMS like the same production stream), and both are, as Robert Scoble might say, ‘retina ready‘.
There is also the conventional wisdom that the two will merge. That years from now, the glasses you use to participate in fully immersive virtual environments will easily transition to virtual content being blended with a view of the world around you.
Video see-through is being explored for VR goggles. Sure, they might cause nausea right now, but they hint at a path where the devices we use will toggle easily between AR and VR.
This might be true. The devices might let us move between subtle gradations of how much of the world is blocked out when seen through our glasses.
But until then, it can cause confusion: there’s an expectation that the lessons we’ve learned from VR should ‘port’ to AR. And the idea of the killer app is one of those expectations.
With the VR industry fearing a “VR winter“, there are even signs that they pin their hopes on AR to help elevate them:
It’s the peril of VR’s influence on AR: that we need to find those killer apps in the same way that VR needs to find its killer experiences and spaces. But it overlooks a key factor: the spaces already exist.
Place Is The Killer App
Is your Starbucks Reward Card a killer app for reality? You take it out for 10 or 15 seconds each morning, that hardly seems to compete with watching 3 hours of TV.
What if it was ‘floating’ above the cash register and you glanced up to check your balance before you buy?
Is a museum audio tour a killer app? What if, instead of wearing a headset, you could ‘see’ the tour on the walls around you, or a virtual guide pops up next to a Rodin and offers you a tour of the artist’s studio?
There’s a peril in drawing lessons from VR because it can lead us to expect that we need to “enter” experiences, much like we enter an app by opening it on our phone.
And yet the measurement of AR will often be a measurement of actual, real-world, physical place.
Success won’t be measured in how long I use an ‘app’ or how replayable it is, but will be measured by the places I go, the habits I have in my daily life, and how often those experiences are augmented in some small way.
Does it matter to Starbucks whether you play an involved AR game while in their stores? Or does it matter that they’ve given you a 5-second hit of your Rewards Card while waiting to pay for your coffee?
Apple’s rumoured Gobi app, with its partnership with Starbucks, won’t necessarily be seen as some sort of killer app, but will be replayable every time you visit a store. It will deliver small, bite size nuggets that could add up to millions of interactions.
The Paradox of Pokemon
I’ll get arguments on this one, but I think Pokemon IS augmented reality, even when you don’t use the AR feature.
Josh may be right: if consumers were asked, they would describe AR as the ability to see a Pokemon on the grass in the park. Most consumers probably wouldn’t know or care.
But I’d argue that Niantic has achieved something bigger: they have augmented physical space with a constructed world.
The map itself is an augmentation. When you’re playing, your local park or the street corner is now a game space.
In fact, the point of the “AR” part of Pokemon ISN’T that it be used all the time. Instead, it’s to help you mentally construct the fantasy that there are Pokemons running around your neighborhood.
They don’t NEED you to keep it on. They just need you to imagine that the augmented overlay that they’ve created is true.
Niantic and The Importance of Place
Matt Miesnieks, former co-founder and CEO of 6D.ai, sold his company to Niantic. His company was mapping physical space.
This doesn’t just mean taking a LiDAR scan of a room. It means semantically mapping the objects in that room. The technology was used by Airbnb, for example, to validate that a host’s listing was correct: does it really have two bedrooms and a dishwasher?
During a recent roundtable, he made an important point about why Niantic would care about mapping physical space: because being able to digitally understand how space works is the key to blending the two realities:
“We sort of realized that where things are going in say a game, you start to get into this potential for a piece of content hidden behind a tree, but you start to give that content an awareness of the world,” said Matt. “The Pokemon knows that it’s a tree and behaves appropriately.”
Niantic may create the killer app for AR. But the “killer” part of it may both be light (like the current use of AR in Pokemon) and spatially aware.
AR isn’t about entering an app. It’s about how apps will be able to respond to place. Where your feet take you will be as important as the visual layers on top of the journey.
Augmented Reality Is Additive
The other peril, I think, from “VR thinking” is that it leads to a belief that AR is meant to be immersive rather than additive.
For a large number of augmented reality use cases, it will be additive to other experiences.
And so the better parallel is to Apple Watch. Even after years on the market, most people would be hard-pressed to say what the stand-alone “killer app” is for the device.
Almost all of the really useful Watch apps are additive to something else. Sure, they’re amazing for fitness tracking, but mostly because you can see the richer/in-depth results on your phone.
Perhaps the only TRUE killer app for Apple Watch is….the watch. It’s the thing that’s usually on.
The Better Analogy for AR Is Your Watch
And I think the same will be true of Apple Glass. The killer app will be the ability to see. Prescription-ready, high fashion frames.
Beyond that, their function will be mainly additive to other things: subtle notifications popping up, your Starbucks card floating above the cash register, maybe some wayfinding support to Apple Maps on your iPhone.
As we move into wearable augmented reality, we’ll need to, well, reframe what we think of as an AR experience.
Right now, we’re searching for replayable AR for our iPad or iPhone. But these are all just prototypes for where the ‘real’ action will be: when we’re wearing a pair of glasses, all day, every day.
Apple is training an army of programmers not because they think we’ll arrive at a killer AR app for iPad, but to seed the ground for the launch of glasses which will, at first, have an incredibly ‘light touch’.
The Hololens and Magic Leap
Both are now focused on the enterprise.
There are already killer use cases on the factory floor, in the operating room, and in building maintenance. Not really the types of things Josh was looking for.
In retrospect, aside from over-promising and under-delivering, Magic Leap took an incredible risk: it was competing for entertainment time in your living room.
It was betting that the ‘magic’ part of the AR experience would be enough to tear you away from your Playstation or from Netflix.
Because you weren’t going to walk around in public with a pair of their goggles on.
But the existence of both wearable devices has blurred the lines between virtual and augmented realities. They kind of look like clear-lens version of the Oculus if you squint a bit.
Most consumers don’t care about augmented reality. They might be vaguely aware of Magic Leap (it managed to get a lot of press, if nothing else), but they probably lump it all in with “those goggles you use in your living room”.
But even within the tech community, Magic Leap helped to create an expectation that augmented reality means whales jumping up on the floor of your school gym. In other words, that the compelling demonstration of AR will be VR but in the real world.
The Platform Will Matter
But what’s clear is that these immersive and ‘magical’ AR experiences are still some way off. They’re probably MORE likely to emerge from VR if, for example, Facebook can solve see-through VR.
But they may represent only a small segment of what augmented reality will actually look like, in the same way that games represent a segment of how you use your phone.
And it helps to make an important point: that the platform matters. How we measure “AR” will be platform-specific.
From richly immersive Magic Leap experiences to super-light Apple Glass (at least for the first 4-5 generations), we will have different expectations from different form factors.
And that, perhaps, as Robert Scoble and Irene Cronin propose in their book The Infinite Retina, we may own more than one device:
“We can see a world where we’ll own two or maybe even three pairs of glasses for different things. Additionally, we might use a very different headset, like the Varjo, when we go to a shopping mall to play high-end VR in Location-based Entertainment retail settings like you see from The Void, Spaces, Sandbox VR, Hologate, or Dreamscape Immersive. These are places you pay $20-$30 or more to have much more immersive experiences than you can at home, but for the purposes of this book, we’ll focus on enterprise and consumer uses of Spatial Computing and not these high-end uses―although you should try them out since our families and team members love them as well.”
WebXR Is A Killer Affordance
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of WebAR. It may be the first AR that most consumers see.
And like glasses it will first penetrate with consumers not as an “AR experience” but as something additive to the Web.
Browse for shoes and click a button to see what they look like in 3D. Quick, consumable, bite-size and context-dependent.
AR Might Arrive And No One Will See
AR will be defined by:
- Multiple platforms, each with measurements that make the most sense
- Additive experiences, much as the Apple Watch was mostly additive (at first) to your phone, or WebAR is additive to a web experience
- Often being measured by its impact on our experiences of place
Years from now, we might look back and wonder why the term “augmented reality” disappeared, or never caught on with the public.
We started wearing glasses and they did amazing things. We started browsing for shoes on the web and popped open a 3D version which we could rotate around.
No one called it augmented reality. It was just there. Reality started to “pop” a bit more. Consumers liked what they saw but there was no “killer app” that came along and convinced them they should “give AR a try”.
We may never be able to point to that time when we first sold on AR, when we got addicted to some new “AR game”. It just WAS.
And the world never looked the same.