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Augmented Reality: will there ever be a significant commercial breakthrough?

7 minute read

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What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented Reality (AR) is a term that has existed for quite some time now but is still being batted around due to the different ways in which businesses are trying to implement it and make it work. Agencies are trying to forge their own identities as AR experts, brands are experimenting, and going forward it doesn’t look like AR will be reigned in. AR is progressing and is something that all businesses should be aware of so as to be informed should it affect or be implemented by them in future.

It’s defined as follows:

‘Augmented Reality noun: An enhanced version of reality where live direct or indirect views of physical real-world environments are augmented with superimposed computer-generated images over a user’s view of the real-world, thus enhancing one’s current perception of reality.’

This definition is the core of how Augmented Reality differs from Virtual Reality; the former is essentially a mix of real and artificial (bringing tech into the real space) rather than the latter which is a clearly delineated imagined/alternate representation (pure escapism).

The study Recent Advances in Augmented Reality expands on this definition a bit further: ‘What is augmented reality? An AR system supplements the real world with virtual (computer-generated) objects that appear to coexist in the same space as the real world. While many researchers broaden the definition of AR beyond this vision, we define an AR system to have the following properties:

  • combines real and virtual objects in a real environment;
  • runs interactively, and in real time; and
  • registers (aligns) real and virtual objects with each other.’

An ideal representation of AR?

One of the most apt (and idealistic) fictitious representations of Augmented Reality that I’ve seen is the technological integration that Robert Downey Jr. uses as Iron Man in the eponymous films and related Marvel movies. He (as Tony Stark) uses voice commands and gestures to sweep futuristic, partially transparent computer screens in front of and around him, whilst interacting with the data and information that’s presented. The screens aren’t just flat like on regular computers, they emerge to become part of the real physical space around the character.

This exemplifies AR in its most ideal status; the character Tony Stark is able to interact with technology by integrating it into the real world and yet, most importantly, remain in complete control. The same can be said for the view that’s presented inside of his helmet; useful information is available in real-time to allow him to perform whatever function he needs at the highest level. The AR tech is thus a prop, and an enhancement for its creator. This of course posits that in an ideal world, if we were the protagonists, we would use this exciting AR/tech, but not be reliant on it. Which raises even more questions about its existence outside of Marvel fantasy; if Tony Stark’s superior tech is removed, we know he has the smarts to create and implement it anew, but what happens in the future real world when experts perish or aren’t present to fix the issues when disaster strikes? The fact that we may become too reliant on technology, or already have, is one of many enduring concerns, some more of which will be briefly highlighted.

When we consider the possible application of this idealistic AR for real life superheroes such as doctors and nurses performing surgery, it appears like it could become extremely valuable. However, idealistic representations of AR are met with a range of concerns and questions. Some of these include whether outside of its useful applications such as in the medical field, AR can actually exceed being considered a novelty, and quiet the extensive list of ethical concerns from meddling with our perception regarding neuroscience to exacerbating our escapist tendencies.

“consumers evaluate the technology positively and highly appreciate its idea and concept. Still, some obstacles need to be overcome before AR succeeds in becoming adopted by the mainstream user.” – Hanna Stockinger

Let’s take a look at some of the ways businesses are using AR, and a handful of the concerns that surround its use.

Can AR exist beyond novelty?

AR is being used in myriad ways, but when it comes to its creative uses it still seems very inchoate and experimental. A lot of the uses for AR leave me with a lot of questions.

augmented reality

One way that AR has been implemented is for a brochure by Engine Creative for a company called Securitas. The brochure is augmented so that customers can download an app and find out more information through additional video content. Despite how clever it is that the agency has augmented the document in this way, it leaves me wondering ‘why’? If additional information is needed, why not include it in the brochure to begin with?

Then it isn’t necessary for people to go to the trouble of downloading an app that they’re probably not going to use past the initial rush of novelty. Perhaps the attempt here is to create a closer link between content that might have been hosted on YouTube or the company’s own website and the brochure, but the need to download an app seems to curtail this effort, e.g. attempting to lessen a minor concern (the disparity between print collateral and video) and unfortunately imposing another block between the two. Essentially, it doesn’t make things any easier for customers.

This example isn’t to single in on this agency by any means, in fact, this is actually a respectable attempt at AR, and there are plentiful other examples of AR being implemented in ways that seem utterly redundant.

For instance, some drinks brands show flowers blooming if you use your phone to scan the item. How useful. Sarcasm aside, some graphics like moving filters on images are supremely popular, so who’s to tell about what might take-off with users/customers. Some clothing brands have also experimented with AR in their stores, but much of it comes off as shaky/not a polished experience, and perhaps not that useful. I have never seen a shopper actively using some kind of AR when they’re out shopping, unless it’s a big, attention-grabbing installation.

An example of an instance where AR has been used effectively is in IKEA’s ‘Place’ campaign, where customers can view furniture as it would appear in their own homes. This works because it’s useful: 

 

“If Augmented Reality technology can make surgery more accurate and airplane flights safer, that is good. They can be useful in integrating information into our visual field.” – Karsten Schoellner

Ethical implications

Perception/neuroscience

In this animated video Professor Beau Lotto at University College London has praised the possibilities of AR with regards to neuroscience and perception, because in his view, it will allow meaningful narratives to be applied. He sees it as a way to confront biases by storytelling, and that by putting the digital world out into the real world, it will augment the world and our experience. This raises a lot of concerns about who will have control over these narratives, what the narratives will convey, and whether adverse effects will ensue. If narratives are used for gaining cultural knowledge such as the heritage of a building like he has discussed in the video, this seems conducive for society and people’s mental health, however, if these tools were placed in the hands of those not operating for the public good or who are corrupt in any way it seems like it could easily veer off in worrying ways.

Escapism…or something even worse?

“Insofar as the term ‘Augmented Reality’ reflects some spiritual longing for a transformation of our ordinary experience, we are cheating ourselves if we buy the idea […] As humans we are prone to certain temptations, ways of living that are easier in the moment but ultimately unsatisfying, and informational technology has been feeding these temptations for some time now. We all know what screen addiction is, addiction to staring into one’s computer or phone. It is one of the more powerful forms of our perennial temptation to escapism, to always being away, getting out of the present moment.” – Karsten Schoellner

What Schoellner has stated here is a mild critique compared to other narratives about AR. The possible implications and effects on how we might see the world due to advancing tech are discussions that are extensive and mainstream. The dystopian tv programme Black Mirror by acclaimed writer Charlie Brooker displays techno-paranoia in full-force and with disturbing potency. Episodes constantly reiterate how the relationship we have with technology has spiralled out of control, such as in an episode featuring an augmented reality ‘Z-Eye’ device.

Likewise, the overwhelmingly intrusive ‘Hyper-Reality’ video by Keiichi Matsuda explores the vast potential of both AR and VR, and has been described as a Black Mirror short story, with another commenter going as far to say, ‘I hope I die before this becomes reality’. Information from computer screens appears everywhere around the character like they’re in a computer game, suffocating the view. You can watch the disturbing video here: 

Looking forward

Opinions are mixed on AR. It’s an advancement that seems to inspire positivity from some, and a deep sense of fear in many others. But, regardless of how contentious it is, it’s still progressing and being developed. A lot of businesses will need to start surveying the competition and the potential for their own products to get an idea of how AR will affect them. It’s always a choice to include a certain tech advancement into a business strategy, and many of them won’t be useful or relevant. To give another tech example, some social media platforms, for instance, won’t be relevant for every business. However, by being aware of the trends and the discussions that surround them business owners can get thinking about what might be influential.

It’s unclear as to whether AR will have an astounding commercial breakthrough at this stage. While it clearly has great potential for certain industries, this might not extend to the average person using it personally (or wanting to use it) for a while, if at all. While AR is still in the liminal stages of development, it’s good to start to be cognizant of its status to creatively plan, or just to stay well informed.

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Content Writer & Editor

Rosie Hayes is the primary Content Editor and Writer at the UK Domain, creating and editing informative and inspiring content for its audiences of small businesses and entrepreneurs. She is a qualified Journalist, NCTJ certified, and is currently an MSt student in Literature and Arts at Oxford University. Having worked in editing, communications, and brand strategy in agencies in Seoul and London, she is passionate about producing intelligent writing with practical and creative value.

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