4 years in, augmented reality in smartphones has yet to catch on

Bad examples of AR turned off users, but that could change as companies get creative and make apps more engaging

Four years have passed since augmented reality (AR) apps for smartphones started appearing in app stores for consumer use, but the trend has been slow to catch on.

While military AR applications for pilots and soldiers have been around for years, AR apps are just now expanding to other work-related areas. One example is fighting fires, where a helmet-mounted display provides a building schematic to indicate where gas lines or people might be located.

"We didn't see AR hit the mainstream until location-based services got big three or four years ago, so you point your phone up at Big Ben and get added information," said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen. "While the military has been using AR for a long time, now we all have devices in our pockets which have made AR accessible to the mass market."

Even so, the mass market for AR apps is still so new that Gartner and other research firms haven't precisely measured its size or financial impact.

"Even though AR is quite prolific for consumers and we've seen a lot of it in the last three years, in terms of AR picking up and engaging consumers, that hasn't happened," Nguyen said.

"There are just so many bad examples of it," Nguyen added. "Let's say I see an ad in a magazine and say, 'Hey, this is AR-enabled' and so I pull out my phone to point at the ad and something comes up, like an animation or a Web site. But I'll say, "OK, that's interesting, but I could have done it at home on my big screen and all you are offering me is the same thing on a smaller screen that costs me data use, so I'm not likely to do that again.'"

There are some interesting consumer AR campaigns, but they are trickling out slowly, Nguyen said. "There are so many solution providers with bad AR campaigns that it's turning people off to AR and giving it a bad name."

Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar WorldPanel Comtech, agreed that AR hasn't been successful with consumers, partly because so many of the app experiences are "quite gimmicky" and not always easy to use. What's needed is a way to make the AR experiences more relevant and engaging to users, she said.

"AR is very hard to do well," added Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "Even small errors in AR cause major issues, and users perceive the lack of coordination or quality."

Conde Nast Traveler was one of the first to use a simple version of AR with its app guides for four popular tourist cities, while Nokia in 2013 upgraded its location-based AR features in the Lumia 1020. With the app, a user can point the Lumia smartphone to a city street scene to see names of shops appear above certain buildings in the display.

One of the more successful recent uses of AR, in Nguyen's opinion, uses the Ikea home furnishing catalog that debuted last year. With Ikea's AR app, a user at home points a smartphone or tablet at an item in the catalog to see on the device's display a couch, chair or table within that user's living space, as shown in this video. For its catalog app, Ikea relied on AR-provider Metaio, which boasts Macy's, Audi and McDonald's among its clients.

Ikea AR app
With the Ikea augmented reality app, a user points a smartphone at an item in the catalog, such as this round table, and can see the item on the smartphone in the user's living space. (Image: Screengrab of Ikea video)
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