Viewpoint: Augmented Reality Check

A quick experiment: think back to the time when you first stumbled into this industry, whether that was two years ago or 10. What was your first Next Big Thing, the technology pipped to revolutionise mobile?

Now, think of the time since. Did those predictions actually pan out?

My theory is that everyone has one of these. Whatever technology happened to be the hot topic when they started out, the one that they credulously bought into, and have been disappointed by ever since.

For me, it was Augmented Reality. Back in early 2012, AR looked like it could be revolutionary. It would tie together the physical and digital worlds in a way that QR codes, it was starting to become clear, were failing to do. With Google’s newly-unveiled Project Glass as its poster boy, AR was the future of mobile – for about nine months.

I mention all of this to explain why I feel, perhaps more than the general consensus, that AR is a dead end. It was something I got invested in, watching and writing about every development with keen interest – and that only makes it easier to become disenfranchised. It’s like being a disappointed parent.

Anyway, by the time the following year’s MWC had rolled around, there was a new Next Big Thing on the agenda. (Wearables, another good contender for a hot technology that failed to fulfil its potential.)

Most deployments of AR proved to be gimmicky at best, and a bit shoddy at worst. That was forgivable in the early days, when it was still a proof of concept, but AR’s next evolution never actually arrived. No one managed to solve the problem that AR was decentralised, requiring the user to download a different app every time they wanted to access new content. If there were any lingering doubts about which way AR was heading, they were completely dispelled by January 2015, when Google confirmed it would no longer be selling Glass, before the device even had a proper public launch.

Since then, we’ve had the odd moment where it looked like AR may be about to blossom again.

There have been consistent reports that Apple is investing heavily in the technology, with 1,000 engineers apparently working on an AR project in Israel. CEO Tim Cook even said in an interview with ABC News last year that, compared to VR, “Augmented Reality is the larger of the two, probably by far”. Google has its own AR effort, Project Tango, which has been used in marketing efforts by the likes of BMW and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Away from the smartphone, there’s also Microsoft’s HoloLens, which could be seen as a spiritual successor to Google Glass. However, HoloLens is technically Mixed Reality – a combination of AR and VR – and hasn’t had chance to prove itself in the consumer market yet.

If you had to pick one recent event that’s guaranteed to come up in conversation with any AR advocate, though, it would have to be Pokémon Go. The game featured an AR mode which let players see the virtual creatures overlaid onto their real-world surroundings.

The game was a monstrous hit, and I was a big fan – but it was also the moment I realised I’d lost all patience with the idea that AR might be due a comeback, to deliver on all those promises that had been made in the early days.

The thing that some people apparently forgot was that Go’s AR mode was an optional part of the experience, rather than the game’s main draw. In fact, after a few forays enjoying the novelty of a Pikachu perched atop a pint glass, most people I know turned it off altogether, complaining of how much it drained their already-strained battery life.

Plus, within the space of a single summer, Go went from being the biggest game in the world to a pleasant memory for all but the most hardened Pokémon masters.

So when, in the space of 24 hours, Facebook and Snapchat both announced their latest pushes into AR – which in most instances would have me looking for the third thing to make a trend – I found myself incapable of any reaction stronger than a shrug.

Besides, even if you were trend-watching with these two announcements, you’d also have to take into account the recent reports about Blippar. One of the first big names in AR, and according to the FT once valued at $1.5bn ($1.2bn) in an acquisition bid it rejected, Blippar was also one of the first to distance itself from the term ‘AR’, repositioning it as ‘image recognition’.

Last week, Business Insider reported that the company is burning around $3m a month, that its quoted figure of 65m users is misleading, and has been unable to “meet investor expectations” or impress agency clients.

So, surprisingly enough, I’m not too enticed by Mark Zuckerberg’s promise that “standing around looking at blank walls” will be one of the future’s hottest activities. As I said, I’ve been burned already, and it’s going to take more than Snapchat’s prerendered video of floating three-dimensional letters to convince me.

All of that said, though, Snapchat is responsible for the one place I think AR has really found its home.

We might not often think of it as such, but Snapchat’s Lenses have undoubtedly been the biggest success of AR. Overlaying a cat’s features onto your face as you line up a selfie isn’t much more sophisticated than those first AR deployment, and it’s certainly no less gimmicky, but it seems to have struck a chord with users.

Unless Apple turns out to have something revolutionary up its sleeve, I suspect that this might remain the high watermark of AR for the foreseeable.

It’s not exactly the future I was promised when I was younger – but then I suppose that’s getting older for you. I hope you’ll forgive me a little bitterness. Like aching bones, it tends to come with the territory.