The Mainstreaming of Augmented Reality

May 26, 2022 / Ben Bajarin

There is little doubt that augmented reality, specifically computing products that blend the physical world with the digital world, is going to be the next frontier of computing. Most of the conversations we are having with the broader tech industry have circled around the core technologies themselves that will be required to bring augmented/mixed reality devices to market. While it is important to understand the components roadmap from everything from optical lenses, sensors, SOCs, and more, the other relevant part of this conversation is what will bring augmented/mixed reality experiences to the mainstream.

I am not a fan of “killer app” nomenclature. I say this because there is a flaw in the “killer app” logic. While it is true a new category of computing needs a few key experiences for anyone to notice, history has shown that mainstreaming a technology requires having an ecosystem of killer experiences in order for it to go beyond early adopters. This means it will not be one specific experience that will drive AR into the mainstream, but rather many will be required.

Developers, Developers, Developers
As all prior technology platforms have proved, developers are essential for AR to go mainstream. Whoever attracts the most developers and provides them with the most innovative tools to create their software vision will be the winners of this next technological shift. This is a main reason why so many people believe Apple is best positioned to bring AR to the mainstream. Apple’s platforms are blessed with one of the largest dedicated software developer bases who continue to invest in Apple’s software platforms and development tools. While it is entirely logical to believe Apple can leverage its developer base and lead them to whatever augmented or mixed reality experiences lie ahead, it is not a foregone conclusion.

The caveat that needs to be mentioned when we talk about AR/Mixed Reality and anything referring to the “Metaverse” is we are many years away from any technology or platform in this category becoming mainstream. Predicting any consumer adoption timeline with accuracy is nearly impossible, but given the numerous technological breakthrough needed to mainstream AR/mixed reality hardware, I think it is reasonable to assume 5+ years before we see the fruit of work being done today to bring AR/mixed reality at scale to a receptive consumer audience.

That being said, what interests me most is to see what creative developers are doing today in AR/Mixed reality and look for things that are a signpost to the future. This is why I was interested in attending Niantic’s Lightship summit earlier this week. Lightship is Niantic’s dedicated AR development platform. Meaning every single developer on this platform is developing only AR applications. One announcement from the summit that caught my interest as a signpost to the future was Lightship VPS (Visual Positioning System). Two elements of this announcement, and the experiences it will yield, stood out to me.

With Lightship, VPS developers can now create AR/Mixed reality experiences that are fixed to specific locations. Imagine a museum, landmark, or sports stadium, for example, creating AR experiences that are fixed around points of interest. Niantic demonstrated this by creating a virtual environment in the venue where Lightship Summit was held. When you held your phone up and looked around, what we saw was not a boring conference room but instead virtual architecture, gardens, ponds, and more which you could explore as you walked around the venue. These AR experiences that are fixed to locations have a great deal of potential to get more people to use and try out AR experiences, even if just through their phone, and get consumers to start exposing them to AR/Mixed reality experiences.

The other element of creating fixed virtual experiences is it opens the door for interactive and dynamic objects to interact with both the physical and virtual world. To use a Pokemon Go example, when a Pokemon appears at a specific location, it could interact with the world around it. Like jumping into a tree and interacting with its branches or onto a statue or light pole. Given locations contain numerous objects that are stationary, this opens up all kinds of possibilities for the blending of dynamic virtual objects to interact with the physical world.

One brand I am particularly interested in to see how they use technologies like this is Disney. With technology like VPS, Disney could create entirely digital experiences that blend with the physical locations in Disney Parks and add an entirely new digital experience overlayed onto locations and structures. Visitors would be able to follow their favorite Disney characters around the park and see them interact with physical locations as if they were physically there. Mini-games of all kinds could be integrated for fans to play all around the parks. If anyone has the brand and innovative spirit to bring mainstream AR experiences to the masses, it is Disney.

I make these points because this is the beginning process of an adoption cycle. Consumers have first to be exposed to a brand new technology or solution before they can see its value and be willing to adopt it more fully in their life. A company like Apple, Meta, Google, and others can’t simply release a fully-functioning headset or glasses and expect consumers to adopt it until they fully understand how it will add value to their life. That is why having a few foundational AR experiences is critical to AR going mainstream.

We know it is still early days, but as I point out, developers are key, and companies creating development environments that enable developers to experiment and create unique AR experiences is the first step. Niantic seems farthest along at this point with dedicated developers building AR experiences, and Apple is likely to keep innovating with AR Kit with new features at WWDC in a few weeks. For now, all we can continue to do is see what creative developers bring to the market and hope for showcase examples that point to a bigger future for AR/Mixed reality.

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