From the hype curve: Augmented Reality gets useful


IKEA’s Place app, the Jeff Koons Snapchat art project and a recent concept design for AirBnB are signs that Augmented Reality is about to move beyond its Pokémon Go phase and actually become useful.

Back in the days when Google Glass was a three-kilogram prototype at Google X, and the hype around Augmented Reality was at its peak, I saw a video artist’s impression of how AR might be used in everyday life. It showed a view of a kitchen, presumably through the lenses of some incredibly expensive eyewear, with a boiling kettle in it. There were (AR) bubbles coming out of the kettle, to show you that the kettle was boiling. Because how else would you know the kettle was boiling? Once again, it seemed we were faced with a technology in search of some problems to solve.

Google Glass came and went, and augmented reality slipped into the trough of disillusionment. Then Niantic and Nintendo showed us just how much fun AR could be in gaming with the phenomenon that was Pokémon Go (500m+ downloaders can’t be wrong). But, despite widespread applications in the military, and in the fields of medicine, and manufacturing, AR still lacked the killer app that would bring it onto the devices of the non-gaming consumer.

With the introduction of ARKit in iOS11 – a developer’s framework for creating augmented reality experiences – it looks like all that’s changing. AR is actually getting useful.

What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented Reality is a live view of reality that’s been augmented by digital imagery. That could be some digitally-rendered bubbles coming out of a real kettle, or a filter that Snapchat applies to the view through your phone camera in real time. Good AR requires a lot of computing power and good sensors, since it needs to scan your surroundings to build up an accurate model of the physical environment before it can ‘place’ 3D objects in that environment. The current generation of mobile phones is just about powerful enough to do that. Previously AR was restricted to heavy industrial and military uses – like the head-up displays (HUD) that superimpose map data over video for fighter and shuttle pilots.

Where can I see it in action?

The most popular smartphone app which utilises AR is the aforementioned Pokémon Go, but if you’re interested in using Augmented Reality for something more useful, like interior design, check out the IKEA Place app.

This lets you choose from over 2,000 of IKEA’s most popular product lines and place them in your current setting. Wondering if the STOCKSUND fits in your living room? Or if the MALM will work next to your bed? Wonder no more.

If you’re visiting a world monument in the near future you could do worse than check out Snapchat’s new art project, launched with a series of digital installations by renowned artist Jeff Koons (he of giant balloon animal fame). It looks like Snapchat wants lots more artists to engage with this new project, which could be in the process of creating a whole new form of public art.

Moving into the really useful end of the spectrum, MeasureKit for iOS can give you estimates of distances, angles, levels and trajectories by pointing your phone’s camera at them. It’s not recommended for high-precision tasks like woodworking (phone sensors still aren’t quite good enough for that) but for hanging pictures and placing furniture it’s much handier than a tape measure-spirit level combo.

What’s next for AR?

Apple aren’t the only ones with an SDK dedicated to augmented reality – ARCore, an evolution of Google’s Tango project, is the Android version. With this kind of developer support on both major platforms we can expect a huge number of new augmented reality apps and use cases jostling for our iTunes and Play Store attention very soon, and for AR to get even more useful.

One concept that’s garnered a lot of attention is this mock-up of a new feature for AirBnB users. It would allow AirBnB hosts the ability to markup parts of their let that need to be explained or annotated (like the thermostat) as part of a walk-through guide for guests. It’s an imaginative, technically feasible and super-useful way to use Augmented Reality – something we can expect to see a lot more of in the coming months and years.

Wherever you might need to deliver information visually and in the moment then AR has the potential to make accessing that information more engaging and contextually relevant. But as the augmented world becomes more cluttered, as with all new technologies, there will be teething problems. We’ll need to work out how to navigate through the clutter. We’ll need to tackle the ethics of what people see. And we’ll have to work out how advertising affects us in an augmented world.