Platform wars—the race to augmented reality innovation

October 3, 20185 minute read

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What single event astounded the tech and gaming world alike in 2016? You guessed it: Pokémon Go, an augmented reality (AR) game unleashed by Niantic Labs that set animated cartoon characters loose in the real world. Nerds of all stripes loved it; in the blink of an eye, the game was downloaded 750 million times.

Augmented reality displays the real world in front of you but pops text and images on top of it. Think yellow first-down markers drawn across a football field on TV. The first bulky prototypes appeared in the 1960s, but the technology really started to take off in recent years with products like Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens.

With the advent of these technologies, AR hardware had been quietly making strides in medicine, manufacturing, and the military for some time. But Pokémon Go upped the stakes instantly, revealing the potential for customer-facing AR and plunging the industry into an AR platform war.

How techies tackle AR

About 77 percent of Americans own smartphones, and it’s that massive installed hardware base that companies are banking on for success. Here’s a peek at what three front-runners have tossed into the AR ring.

  • Facebook: At F8 in April 2017, Mark Zuckerberg jumped ahead of the pack, declaring, “We’re going to make the camera the first mainstream AR platform.” Facebook’s opening gambit, Camera Effects, an open platform where developers can build features for the cameras living inside Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp, would allow Facebook’s users to share AR content. Zuckerberg also envisions three types of future AR experiences: Objects augmented with information, like putting a restaurant’s reviews on its storefront; virtual objects layered onto reality, like turning a tabletop into a chessboard; and objects enhanced with effects, like adding a castle turret onto your house.
  • Apple: In June 2017, Apple entered the fray with ARKit, which can move digital objects around in real space. Users can watch changing effects through the camera lens. Apple estimates that 200 million existing phones can run ARKit apps. They even teamed up with Ikea to help shoppers judge how virtual furniture will fit in their apartment, as well as examine the texture and see how light and shadows affect the colors.
  • Google: ARCore, the Android equivalent to ARKit, announced in August 2017, allows you to hold an AR creation in the palm of your hand. At least 100 million users can run ARCore today. ARCore can display an electric sports car in your living room—virtually. Choose features, explore under the hood in x-ray mode, then slide into the driver’s seat and take the car for a virtual spin.

Bring AR to marketing

Think of the power AR technology offers brands and businesses to virtually shake hands with their customers, build rapport, and entice buyers to purchase goods and services. Explaining the potential AR holds for marketing, Gina Michnowicz of Union+Webster says, “As marketers and advertisers, we are all telling stories. AR gives you a more immersive platform to tell a story, directing people to deeper content, game-like features, and bringing the consumers into the experience.”

Pokémon Go’s marketing swagger was built on monetization schemes, such as sponsorships and lures that attracted players to a particular PokéStop. Not every business can follow that blueprint, but AR point-and-click apps are gaining traction: scan an AMC Theatres movie poster, and you can see a trailer and buy tickets. Use the Pizza Hut AR app and enjoy a trivia challenge while ordering pizza. At Zara, the Spanish fashion retailer, view an AR window display of models wearing selected looks and click through to buy the clothes you like.

Discuss AR around the water cooler

The customer-facing possibilities are staggering, but AR is also headed to the workplace. “The Possibility Report” in The Atlantic offers a collection of compelling examples—like how Boeing workers can use Google Glass to assemble complex wire harnesses for aircraft, significantly reducing errors and boosting productivity by 25 percent.

In the office, because AR isn’t tethered to a particular place, it could change the way you think about your physical space. If you’re a remote worker, AR may open new avenues for collaborating across the globe. Fortune contends that AR will also change corporate training forever, stating that, “Machine learning and augmented reality will likely take . . . educational approaches to the next level by empowering workers to have the latest, most accurate information available in context, when and where they need it most.”

Ask yourself: Can AR pose a security risk?

The downside is the blurred reality and immersive nature of AR make it more dangerous than traditional technologies. Given that it’s most often used on smartphones, organizations need to apply the same types of security features they have on their mobile communications or mobile printing apps. Failing to do so could not only put your data at risk but also potentially alter your users’ reality.

Sunil Gupta, President and COO of Paladion Networks, explains that, like web browsers, AR gateways extract and display website content. Intruders could access sensors, develop graphic objects, and integrate visuals into a user’s environment. By manipulating a navigation system, hackers could generate a false speed limit sign or leak a person’s location. These hacks are possible because most AR servers don’t have strong data protection protocols in place. If you’re using a third-party app for workplace AR, it’s important to carefully vet it. Gupta writes that AR services should, “limit channel registration policies, implement accurate filters for image recognition, and provide information on AR content origin before any page is downloaded.”

Despite its security challenges, augmented reality will change the world. Tech giants have put a stake in the ground to make AR the new reality within the next few years—because the gold ring is an estimated $90 billion payoff. If you want to steal a piece of that pie or just experiment by bringing some AR into your office IT environment, consider the security factor and keep up with the latest trends. A new reality awaits!

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