What Is Augmented Reality (AR)? A Practical Overview
Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that lets people superimpose digital content (images, sounds, text) over real-life scenes. AR got a lot of attention in 2016 when the game Pokémon Go made it possible to interact with Pokémon superimposed on the world via a smartphone screen.
Since then, augmented reality has become more and more popular. Apple introduced its ARKit platform in 2017, and Google launched web API prototypes later that year. And then there’s Apple’s AR glasses, rumored for launch later this year, which will let wearers have AR experiences without looking down at a phone.
In other words, AR is on the verge of going mainstream. If you’re still wondering what exactly it is, you’re in the right place. Here, we’ll explore what AR is with a focus on its practical and commercial applications.
What Is Augmented Reality (AR)?
Augmented reality is what it sounds like: reality, enhanced with digital components. The most commonly used AR applications these days rely on smartphones to showcase the digitally augmented world: users can activate a smartphone’s camera, view the world around them on the screen, and rely on an AR application to enhance that world in any number of ways:
- Superimposing images
- Adding real-time directions
- Inserting labels
- Changing colors
It’s also important to understand what AR is not.
AR is not a fully immersive experience like virtual reality (VR). While virtual reality requires users to don a special headset and pulls them into a completely digital world, AR lets them continue interacting with the physical world around them (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1: Non-immersive AR experience (L), Fully immersive VR experience (R)
Common Augmented Reality Use Cases
So what is augmented reality used for these days? A lot more than helping people track down pocket monsters. In fact, in 2020, nearly every industry has found ways to apply AR to improve processes and outcomes. Common uses include…
- Training and education: Dynamic, AR-based instructions let people perform new tasks more easily and quickly than traditional training methods (like instruction manuals). As hardware like AR-powered glasses and contacts become more widely available, the potential for training via AR will be tremendous.
- Entertainment: AR has been enhancing our entertainment for years. In 2012, a hologram of Tupac Shakur appeared onstage with Snoop Dogg at Coachella. This year, a fully CGI avatar who happens to be an instagram influencer was signed by talent agency CAA. And to adapt to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the band Real Estate offered a “Quarantour,” meaning an AR-powered tour to replace the live shows it had to cancel because of worldwide quarantines.
- Gaming: Today, dozens of other games incorporate AR elements. This is no surprise, as gaming was one of the most obvious early applications that many people saw for AR and VR capabilities.
- Selling: These days, it’s possible to virtually try on or try out a variety of merchandise before buying: Sephora’s app lets you view cosmetics in AR on your face; IKEA offers a chance to “see” furniture in your home; paint brands let you virtually view colors on your walls; Warby Parker makes it possible to “try on” glasses frames without actually visiting a store location or ordering samples. Pre-pandemic, these offerings provided a way to enhance in-store experiences or make life a little easier for busy shoppers. Now, they’ve made it possible for many brands to sell to shoppers stuck in their homes. AR applications for eCommerce are poised to become the norm.
Today, most of these experiences are possible thanks to smartphones. What’s really exciting about augmented reality is how the development of more advanced hardware (like Apple’s AR glasses) could open the door to even more applications.
Imagine, for example, viewing IKEA furniture in your apartment via AR, ordering it online, and then receiving it with assembly instructions that projected themselves right on the pieces in the box, thanks to your AR-enabled glasses. The possibilities are endless and endlessly exciting.
Selling with Augmented Reality: A Closer Look
While all of the use cases for augmented reality mentioned above are intriguing, the one most relevant to most companies – especially in a time when businesses around the world have been forced to close their doors to foot traffic – is AR-powered selling.
For more insight on how augmented reality can enhance a brand’s selling capabilities, check out these articles:
- Why B2B Teams Are Using 3D Configuration and Augmented Reality
- Announcing Configurable AR: The Next Generation of Virtual Selling
- How 6 Brands Are Using Augmented Reality (And How You Can Too)
Augmented Reality Technology: What Do Brands Need?
The promise of selling more with help from AR is compelling, but it also raises an important question: what technology does a company need to introduce augmented reality features to its existing website?
The answer, of course, will be a little different for every brand, but the short version is that adding AR to a website today is much easier, faster, and more accessible than it was even a couple of years ago, thanks to new software on the market.
If you’re intrigued by the potential AR has to improve your bottom line, here are a few guiding principles to keep in mind:
- AR functionality should live on your website, not in a dedicated app. Customers don’t want to download an app just to use AR features. To enjoy the sales boost that AR features can offer, eliminate unnecessary hurdles to using them.
- AR-generating software can save you time, energy, and money. A few years ago, any brand that wanted AR had to build the functionality itself, from the ground up. Today, software like Threekit makes it possible to generate AR content with a SaaS model. This makes the path to AR smoother, faster, and more accessible.
- Build AR for smartphones. Again, if you want the benefits AR offers, you have to maximize the odds that your customers will use it. That means creating AR experiences that work with the tech most people have today, which means smartphones.
For more on the technology that powers AR, check out our guide The State of AR on the Web.
The Commercial Opportunities for AR Are Only Growing
Augmented reality is, undeniably, a cool technology. But what is maybe coolest is its potential to improve so many aspects of the customer experience, even when that experience happens within the confines of the customer’s home.
In an age of increased reliance on eCommerce, this means that AR is a powerful tool that brands across industries can leverage to improve their relationships with customers and ultimately improve their bottom lines.
Ready to find out how AR can help your company? Schedule a demo today.