Buckle up, buttercups; the Augmented Reality Hype Wave is about to crest, and just about all the big players will be surfing it.
Google tried to grab an early wave, last week releasing a preview of ARCore, its framework for augmented reality on Android phones. It won’t arrive until later in the fall, but Google hopes to have the framework on 100 million phones quickly.
And Facebook, which is pushing its own flavor of AR, is preparing its 2 billion users for the AR-inflected world. Facebook’s Newsfeed is already showing video that explains how, AR will reshape the way we interact with the world.
In one video I saw, a woman works with graphic elements that, cut to next scene, are digitally draped over architectural elements in a building. AR, the short informs us, will change the way we think of art. AR art (ok, ARt) will indeed be a cool thing.
Writer William Gibson, in a recent book, envisioned the art possibilities, including a virtual shrine to Helmut Newton outside the Chateau Marmont, where the provocative photographer had a fatal car accident in 2004.
Imagine shrines, street art, political protests and much else annotating the world around us. Yeah, could be cool, could be awful, but no doubt that it’s coming. That’s only one application of lots, but it’s one I welcome.
Snapchat, of course, has been getting its 175 million young users accustomed to a fun version of AR for years, but now is locked in a death match with copycat Facebook and its stalking horse, Instagram.
Meanwhile, the biggest of the big, Apple, officially catches the wave next week, on Aug. 12, as part of its annual iPhone-centric media event ahead of the holidays.
The World’s Most Valuable Company already signaled its AR interests back in June at the Worldwide Developers Conference, where it announced ARKit, the set of software infrastructure tools that code writers can use when creating their own mobile apps.
Anticipate a blizzard of apps to arrive in short order, helped by the usual Apple marketing omnipresence. What’s important about ARKit is that, in a very short time, developers will have relatively pain-free access to an installed base of hundreds of millions of iPhones (though you can bet the much-rumored iPhone 8 super phone will do it the best).
Access to that huge installed base, along with the iTunes Store, will be deliciously attractive to developers who may have been working in AR’s immersive cousin, virtual reality.
A year ago, VR had all the hype, and investment capital. It’s not going away, but it’s definitely evolving. Meanwhile, we’re seeing smart developers look for the next opportunity.
One good example is Vertebrae.io, which has been making interactive advertising elements for 360-degree video and other VR experiences for a couple of years now. The Santa Monica, Calif., company is still pushing those VR-oriented technologies, especially for the widely accessible 360-degree format.
But, CEO Vince Cacace tells me, the company is eagerly pivoting to the new opportunity, even as it anticipates that Facebook and Snapchat will battle for control over ad opportunities in AR.
“It’s like the platform wars with Snapchat and Facebook,” Cacace said. “Facebook is pushing an ad format, Snap is pushing an ad format. Both have limits. You can’t lead someone to purchase.”
For Vertebrae, a huge opportunity (thanks to what Google, Apple and Microsoft are doing) sits on the mobile web, beyond the controlled spaces of Facebook and Snapchat.
“For us, the vision is delivering the AR vision outside the walled gardens,” Cacace said. “We’ll give the digital assets to the brands, and if they also want to go to Facebook or Snapchat, they can.”
Sitting outside the walled gardens will give creators and brands more flexibility and opportunity, plus better metrics (certainly better than what Snap now provides). User-aware AR technologies that can lead to actual sales and marketing opportunities can be powerful, Cacace argued.
“It’s browsers, it’s all about the browsers, baby,” Cacace said. “We want to have people be able to have an experience in the most frictionless way possible. We have a box of Golden Grahams in the kitchen right now, and have a little 3D game that pops up on the box.”
Cacace estimated the market is still “three or four years away from an AR-based ecosystem. It’s a three-pronged approach: it stars on the web, moves to apps, then to headsets.”
In the meantime, there are plenty of tech challenges, like having enough smarts on the backend to run AR systems, and having enough content to engage users regularly. But marketers can still grab viewer attention with smart AR experiences, said Cacace.
“The power of advertising and marketing is that you don’t need a sticky experience,” Cacace said. ” You can try on Ray-Bans, drive a car, or take a picture next to a movie character. You need an engaging one, and utility that leads someone down the path to purchase.”