Nowadays, we can’t ignore the impact of Augmented Reality as it is becoming a part of our everyday life.
According to Ronald T Azuma, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, Augmented Reality refers to an interface between « virtual » data and the real world. It is initially derived from the notion of virtual reality, which appeared in the 1990s and refers to an evolution in techniques for representing a world in 3 dimensions. But they should not be confused. While virtual reality makes the user live in this universe with a helmet and motion sensors, augmented reality enriches reality by integrating computer-generated graphics (objects or effects) with the real world that surrounds us, i.e. by acting as a lens through which we look at an augmented version of reality.
It was first conceptualized by Horton Heilig in 1962 with the creation of a helmet (Sensorama) equipped with sensors to simulate a scene. But the first augmented reality system was designed in 1968 by Ivan Sutherland during research at the MIT. It was a helmet with two lenses at eye level and connected to the computer by an articulated arm, which earned it the nickname of the Sword of Damocles. Advances were made in the 1980s with HUD (Head-up display) systems and with NASA, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the exact term augmented reality was coined by Boeing employees.
It was mainly developed for experimental and professional purposes (army, industry, medicine, etc.). Very quickly, companies understood the stakes of this technology and tried to appropriate it. However, for a long time, technological barriers limited its use. It was necessary to use a computer, a screen and other cumbersome peripherals that were difficult to use in the field. So, with the advent of smartphones and tablets, the AR industry is booming, and many companies are finding professional uses for them. Recently, the success of the game Pokémon Go and the massive use of Snapchat have amplified its notoriety so that augmented reality is starting to develop for the general public.
What is the economic role of augmented reality in nowaday society?
When Pokémon Go was launched on smartphones by Nintendo in 2016, the application was downloaded by at least 1 billion people (which currently represent 14% of the world population) in less than one year. This success illustrates the new capacities of digital technologies thanks to the Augmented Reality. AR now can help people in their everyday life: there are countless stores that allow you to try product online, from glasses to clothes, but also antique shops and decoration boutiques. People are becoming always more connected to this new technology as they use it more and more through multiple devices. In the healthcare sector, AR is allowing researchers and caretakers to improve their treatments. In the industry sector, AR technology is already used by 88% of the mid-sized companies to produce new products and help create new innovations to address societal challenges. The military sector is using for several years AR technologies to create new weapons and develop new defensive systems. Thousands of applications using AR technologies have emerged on the digital market to meet consumer expectations and facilitate their everyday life. For example, Xplora was an application developed in Grenoble and based on the augmented reality. It was the first general public application which recognized and gave information about public areas. This could be possible thanks to an open database and a phone’s camera. This free of charge application permitted to access to a range of information such as the opening hours, history facts… However, it lasted one year and then the company made a radical transformation. They created a brick that they sold to app developers, a real turnkey solution. ‘Developing augmented reality takes approximately 4 months for a normal company…with Xplora, you could have the same thing in 3 days’ said the co founder Mickael Lafrasse. Thus, it worked very well for Xplora which was really cost-effective. Nevertheless, without really knowing it, their end was near…The heavyweight Apple and Google developed the same thing…but cheaper. As a consequence, the business for AR nowadays is not about selling software that will collect data but more about developing apps based on Google and Apple softwares.
In that respect, big companies are investing a lot to penetrate the market and increase their customer base. That’s why Apple launched a new device on its IOS and iPad OS platforms called Quick Look to help people choose more easily their products by giving them an overview of the product and using even sounds to make consumers comfortable. But Apple is just an example of the huge transformation and investments of the big compagnies in AR. Indeed, AR market forecast is expected to hit $70 billion in revenue in 2023. The economic perspectives in the sector justifies the massive investments of companies such as Tencent and Baidu in the sector. The AR industry annual growth is expected to increase of 80% between 2016 and 2024. And with the development of the 5G technology we can expect an even more important rise of the AR technology. But this technology race also questions the ability of governments to innovate and it is now not only a technological innovation but also a race to keep improving countries soft power.
Furthermore, Augmented reality is changing our way of living in each part of our lives. It can change the way of moving and especially with Google maps. This famous app develops a combination of the street view and the map in order to help you to move in a city. Google decides to go further that only guide you, but it can now provide some special recommendations. Those recommendations would be personalized as the name of the program shows “For you”. For instance, the app will saved that you like pasta and will show pasta places.
Moreover, as stated above, AR is present in the shopping sector and especially in the way of trying clothes. In a society of overconsumption, we can ask the following question: is the AR influent on our way of buying? Thanks to VDRs (Virtual Dressing Rooms), consumers can see how items look on themselves by means of AR. Researches show that VDRs enable customer for having a better understanding of clothing, and it increases the consumer’s intent of purchase. The use of Augmented Reality in e-commerce gives rise to exciting prospects, but the technology has not reached its full potential. A new way of shopping is rising but it’s not so democratized, companies have to think their way of selling in the next years.
What are the potential drawbacks of AR?
Even though AR appears as a marvelous tool for business, they should also recognize the potential dangers of AR. AR aims, whether directly or indirectly, at reshaping the world we live in. Consequently, AR bring hazards as the collect of intimate biometric data. When using SnapChat and Facebook filters, people show their face and their facial expressions. All that can be used then to identify us. Nonetheless, if data are a sensitive issue when it comes to AR, it is because they also have to be stored in order to optimize the AR experience… As any other technology, AR could be threatened by potential hackers and thus lead to dramatic consequences as misdirect a driver while using an AR application for example.
All these dangers must be taken into account and prioritize by the organizations which decide to use AR because users cannot really overcome these dangers by themselves. Indeed, they could turn their location off when using apps but the result won’t be as efficient as it could be. Consequently, it is important that users enjoy the benefits of AR while organizations ensure beforehand their security.
Nevertheless, with such technology it is more than central that users while using AR show some common sense and critical mind. Why? Because some organizations could be committed into a particular cause and could manipulate people. That is becoming easy with AR app. As the London designer Keiichi Matsuda says, “AR is at once an exciting and dangerous perspective”. In his short provocative 10-minutes movie Dream or nightmare? Keiichi wants to highlight that AR will be “the glue” between each interaction, each experience and will offer incredible opportunities but also literally control the way we comprehend things. To illustrate that, he stages a girl doing her food shop with AR. In her shopping cart appears not only her shop list but also her level points that is evolving according to what she buys. When she finishes, she goes in front of a catholic statue. Here, the AR intelligence displayed that she could go to the level up if she confesses her sins, attend mass and be baptized with a bonus if she does charity work and spread the words of God…
AR is constantly gaining ground in everyday life and multiplying its applications. However, many agree that its future will be through glasses and masks and not mobile phones. Indeed, AR on phones is still limited by the size of the screen and our ability to see beyond it. When used on a phone the image is not able to follow our eyes and the brain is not fooled. Also, our vision doesn’t seem real because the reality around us is visible. That’s why AR experiences on phones are nice toys but with little future, as the Pokémon Go application shows. Its success has focused more on location-based gameplay than on the AR mode, which is optional and mostly disabled.
On the contrary, while looking at AR with a pair of glasses people do not see real reality around a limited window of false reality but the real world around them. The most likely scenario is a compact, lightweight pair of glasses that contains only a transparent screen and 3D detection equipment. It would transmit its position and orientation data to your phone, which would generate the correct graphics to overlay on your view. These graphics would be sent back to the glasses and displayed on their transparent surface.
One of the future examples of augmented reality could be embodied by Magic Leap. Indeed, after years of announcement effects, video clips and fundraising records, the American start-up had unveiled its AR support in 2017. It would take the form of glasses connected to a box at the belt level and a small controller. The whole kit would initially be intended for professionals. These glasses could have different uses. The start-up is banking on a use for virtual shops, designers and architects at the same time. It also wants to extend it to a wider public, particularly through the use of video games. However, this type of use is not yet possible. That’s what Grégory Maubon, the co-founder and CEO of RA’Pro says : “Today it is really developed especially professionally for the quality controls notably and it continues to evolve. But for the general public it’s hard as 99,9% have smartphones but there is no general public glasses. We may arrive thanks to Apple to AR glasses but it will take a long while as it will be very expensive and thus impossible to democratise before 5 or 10 years.” Mass marketing of such glasses must therefore wait a few years because there are huge technological challenges and the cost would currently be too expensive for mass adoption.
What if the current epidemic changes the fate of AR?
According to Dice insights ‘Covid-19 could change the fortune of AR’. With Covid-19, people are forced to work remotely from their home, and we do not know yet if the situation will revert back once the epidemic is over, or if the remote working will take roots in the way companies work. Thus, people are looking for an efficient way to collaborate over long distance. That’s when AR comes into play. The Microsoft AR-based HoloLens is the epitome of that and permits surgeons and industrial workers to work together. The problem is that even if AR is about to go mainstream because it allows firms to work easily, companies are tightening their budget and the AR technology would lead to approximately the same productivity outcomes. Covid-19 won’t affect the fortune of AR in the short-term but inexpensive headsets and better software could change the game if remote work becomes the long -term normal. The co-founder of RA’Pro, Grégory Maubon explains that “it is likely that the market will grow but we can’t predict what will happen.” He does not really want to go into the impact of the coronavirus, as according to him “humans have a certain interty to return their habits. Consumption habits change but rarely so fast. Let’s spend the 3-4 months for the French ecosystem to recover and then we’ll see what consequences we can draw from this period and what practical changes people want to conserve.”.
To summarize, no one can deny that AR is more and more present in our daily lives and it will be on the increase on the future because this sector is rentable for companies: around 75$ billion in 2023. AR is an incredible tool for companies as designers, architects … but it can be misused in order to collect data and use them in the way that consumers doesn’t agree. AR rises privacy questions for the users and companies. Its future depends of the way of using, and it can also be restricted by some countries or organizations in order to protect consumers. Only time will tell.