Augmented reality isn’t mainstream for 3 main reasons

Augmented Reality (AR) Technology is nearing its 20th birthday. This is surprising. AR feels newer than that. The AR Wikipedia page refers to functional AR systems in military training existing as long ago as 1992. Moreover, if AR really is this old, why hasn’t it seen mainstream adoption yet? You might’ve expected someone to have created an AR-based solution to an everyday problem by now. Maybe AR is just destined to be for catching Pokémon on your street corner, or for the “cute pink furry ears” filter on Snapchat. The cat filter Zoom debacle is one of AR’s funniest moments. As much as we love cute pink furry ears, AR has more potential than that. What what is stopping AR from being more integrated into everyday life?

“I’m not a cat!” – A Texas lawyer struggles with a Zoom Augmented Reality Filter.

As an emerging technology in the early 2000s, there was a high degree of excitement and expectation for AR. In 2021, AR has disappeared from the Gartner Hype Cycle entirely. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If there is consensus that it no longer falls into the emerging tech category, perhaps people will start to see AR as a mature technology. There are three main areas in which AR can improve to help with wholesale adoption:

Firstly, there needs to be a standout application for AR. Secondly, AR hardware will have to improve. After that, AR will need to shake the perception of being a gimmicky technology.

1. One Standout App

In 1955, a Swiss engineer patented a fabric fastening technology called Velcro. Velcro was an emerging technology of its time. TIME magazine described Velcro as “a zipperless zipper”. Today, Velcro is as ubiquitous as the internet. It is surprising then that the first major brand to use Velcro fasteners on their sneakers was Puma, in 1968. It took over a decade for the fashion industry to risk a product that didn’t have shoelaces. Once industry understood how useful Velcro was, it became mainstream. In other word, hassle-free fastening was Velcro’s standout application. AR needs a proof of concept. A standout app that shows off the technology.

Microsoft Excel is not the spreadsheet application. “VisiCalc” was a spreadsheet computer program developed for Apple in 1979. Microsoft themselves produced a predecessor to Excel in the form of “Multiplan” in 1982. Excel was adopted as a mainstream technology. This was because it was the best spreadsheet application, not because it was the first one. Bill Gates and co. learnt from the limitations of other programs. They perfected the medium. There are many other technologies that blew up because of one key aspect of their functionality. The cell-phone allowed ordinary people to communicate on the move. The smartphones allowed us to have the internet wherever we went. Blackberry and Nokia were pioneers of mobile phone technology. Samsung and Apple are now giants in the space. 

This is good news for Augmented reality. The technology has been around long enough for developers to build on the work of the past. AR applications can developed for smartphones or an AR headset. In either case, if it solves a common problem, it could go mainstream. Above all, the aim is for an app to be a part of daily life.

2. Expensive and Clunky Hardware

The first generation Hololens and Google Glass: neither AR headset was particularly successful.

So far, AR headsets have been a swing and miss. Microsoft’s 1st generation HoloLens and Google Glass have not been particularly successful. They are joked about in pop-culture. Google Glass is as expensive as the HoloLens is heavy. However, companies like Oculus, Lenovo, and Toshiba are all developing their own augmented reality glasses. Facebook has now acquired Oculus. Apple owns NextVR. In other words, both tech giants are vying to be major players in the Extended Reality ecosystem. Industry insiders report that the latest AR device will be called ‘Apple Glass’. This is likely a direct response to Google’s effort in this space. Apple Glass is said to be released either next year or in 2023

Google Glass is as expensive as the HoloLens is heavy.

AR tech needs to be more accessible to go mainstream. AR headsets are fairly uncommon. However, there are many companies trying to make the first widely used AR headset. It is only a matter of time before the hardware is lighter and cheaper. Some tech experts argue that we all already have the best hardware for augmented reality in our pockets. Everyone has a smartphone. Whatever the case may be, the introduction of 2nd generation HoloLens and Oculus Quest respectively, suggest that there is a big push to make AR more viable.

3. Augmented Reality’s ‘Gaming Gimmick’ Problem

AR has an image problem. We argue that it is no longer a gimmick. The rest of the world is not yet on board. The success of Pokémon Go and Snapchat has put AR into an unfortunate category. The experience most people have with AR revolves around a wild Pikachu appearing, or teenagers superimposing puppy-ears onto their faces. There is a perception of AR as being a niche, gimmicky technology.

This doesn’t have to be the case. For instance, it has the capacity to revolutionise the way that we think about healthcare, engagement in the classroom, the sharing and storing of information online, and giving customers the opportunity to visualise purchases before they’re made. Renowned New York-based futurist, Ian Khan, is an advocate of AR. He argues that AR applications will allow for some of the most complex surgeries to become commonplace in the future. AR advocates hope that it can shrug off the ‘gaming gimmick’ label.

The possibilities of AR far outweigh the cloud of doubt surrounding it. All it’ll takes is a creative use of the now mature technology to prove this. Paired with a visionary that can bring the technology back into the limelight, AR to once-again find mainstream appeal.

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