Why It’s Virtually Certain Augmented Reality Will Go Mainstream in 2018

There have been plenty of reviews of Apple's new iPhone X detailing how it differs from previous models: the edge-to-edge OLED screen, the front-facing TrueDepth selfie camera, the notch, Face ID, etc. While the phone is impressive in its own right, the shift in design direction is a screaming indicator of what the new year will hold for mobile experiences—they are going to be augmented.

In particular, the litany of new camera and display features in iPhone X, along with the public release of the iOS 11 ARKit SDK back in September, show that Apple hardware and software are now being purposely designed to enable augmented reality (AR) applications on a scale beyond mere Snapchat filters and Pokémon Go games. This is now equipment for creating a new class of interactive customer experiences.

In recent months, AR capabilities have been extended to support new location and triggering functions, which extend the possibilities for a range of customer information-transfer applications. Imagine walking down a city street and aiming your phone at a restaurant to see a text bubble displaying hours of operation, menu, wait times, or images of the dining room layout or daily specials. Aim your phone at brand logos to pull up AR overlays with service or product information or visual AR equivalents of interactive voice response (IVR) systems. Point your phone at a hotel to get an AR room tour, facility map, or event directory. Point your phone down a hallway at a conference and scroll through pop-up bubbles indicating which session is scheduled in which room at which time.

Both virtual reality (VR), which immerses the user in digital environments, and augmented reality, which overlays digital information on images of real environments, have advanced at break-neck pace in recent years. Apple isn't the only company investing in reality bending. Facebook, Google, HTC, Samsung, and many other tech players are pursuing dominance in what is akin to a new hardware and software arms race. Beyond all other considerations, there is the million-dollar question for both VR and AR development: Aside from obvious gaming use cases, how is anybody going to make money with this stuff?

AR development has an inherent lead in answering that question because it doesn't face the hurdle of inventing consumer-friendly hardware to enable the technology. The only gear you need is an ordinary mobile phone with a camera. Since smartphones are already essential appendages to modern consumers, the delivery mechanism has already been embraced.

Apple's iPhone X, iOS 11, and the anticipated slew of similar but competing phone design upgrades show that making money on AR in the immediate future is already being geared toward refining delivery for ubiquitous facilitation: A means to experience the new technology through a device that consumers would buy anyway, for other purposes; accessible development tools for unrelated industries to provide content for the new technology; a ready-made marketplace for apps and extensions using the new technology. What all this equates to is AR as a new communications and consumption medium. Augmented reality isn't just a cool new feature for gaming, it's a new customer channel for brands.

Augmented Customer Experience (CX)

The best examples of companies already forging this channel come from retail. Witness the ARKit-leveraging IKEA Place app, which invites shoppers to see how items from the Swedish furniture maker's catalog will appear in their homes through true-to-scale 3D models selected, positioned, and viewed through the phone screen. Amazon's AR View extends that model with its iOS 11 app for overlaying products, such as toys, appliances, and electronics, onto living spaces. More of these envisioning AR applications from an expanding number of retailers will begin appearing next year, but such potential purchase overlays are only the beginning.

Instruction or self-service can also be enhanced through a new AR customer channel. Say you're having trouble with your Wi-Fi router. Instead of calling the manufacturer's customer service line or initiating a help desk chat, you could just point your phone at the router and AR overlays would walk you through the troubleshooting process. Through new smartphone technology, AR can let us interact three-dimensionally with objects right in front of us. AR apps can supply a whole new layer of intelligence, effectively meshing with the physical world, and a powerful new mechanism for companies to service their customers.

What's Next

Apple's ARKit, Google's ARCore, and similar platforms are designed to remove a big hurdle for companies diving into the new mobile AR channel, and the new phones of 2018 are designed to deliver AR as the new killer application. This is what will fuel an explosion of smartphone-based AR customer experiences in the coming year. But an even larger expansion of this emerging consumer channel will follow. Apps still require a level of work on the part of the user, but AR technology is advancing so rapidly that the app problem will evaporate into a more seamless experience. Web AR is on the horizon, and soon you won't need to download AR apps. They will just be enabled in your browser, making the technology even more accessible and commonplace.

And lest you think Google Glass and its compatriots are dead, there is a lot of aggressive development on smart glasses and AR headsets underway, geared toward extending the mobile AR experience out of our hands and into our eyes, perhaps eventually producing wearables that people won't actually mind wearing. Indeed, Apple just bought an augmented reality headset startup. Future enhancements must include real-time interactivity and the ability to complete transactions entirely within AR experiences. But make no mistake, AR is a new customer channel.

Simon Wright is director of augmented reality and virtual reality at Genesys, a provider of omnichannel customer experience and contact center solutions. He is based in the company's regional office in Sheffield, England, and can be reached at simon.wright@genesys.com or @simonwright44.

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Posted April 20, 2018