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Here’s Why Mobile Applications Are the Augmented-Reality Hybrid

This post is sponsored by Samsung Business. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Augmented reality (AR) is a big deal. No, it didn’t come along the way we expected, via some expensive headset or pair of glasses. Instead, the smartphone serves as the gateway for millions of people to enjoy an AR experience. Scores of people have been walking around catching virtual monsters that they can only see through their phones. Cat and dog ears appear on real-time photos and videos. You probably already have an AR device in your pocket—smartphone applications are driving the augmented reality revolution.

The History of AR

AR has a longer history than you might believe. A computer engineer named Ivan Sutherland invented the first AR headset in 1968. It was an unwieldy thing—a massive contraption of wires and pipes suspended above the user. It was known as the Sword of Damocles, thanks to its terrifying appearance. Compared to today’s technology, it provided an unimpressive user experience: Simple wireframe graphics were overlaid in the user’s view, giving the impression of being in a different room. The public largely ignored the device, but it helped pave the path toward today’s more practical AR developments.

Fast-forward 33 years: Google makes the first loud splash in the AR space with its Google Glass program. This invention didn’t exactly change life as we know it, but it did get people talking. More importantly, it moved people to explore the practical applications of AR. Google Glass promised a lot: A head-mounted display fed users information in real time, including walking directions, landmark information, and more. It may have been a great idea, but the public wasn’t quite ready for it. And the awkward-looking glasses held back widespread adoption, in much the same way 3D hasn’t taken off in homes because of the need to wear special glasses to view most 3D television screens.

The Augment Reality Explosion

In spite of the lukewarm reception Google Glass received, AR took a bold step in the summer of 2016. An AR app for Android and iPhone was downloaded hundreds of millions of times, reigning in popularity for a full month with more concurrent users than the Facebook mobile app. I’m talking, of course, about Pokémon Go, the little AR game that earned its parent company, Niantic, nearly half a billion dollars. It didn’t involve a headset. Users needed only their smartphone to play.  By sending users searching the streets, visiting libraries and local landmarks in search of Pokemon, the game added an exciting real life component that puts the “reality” aspect of augmented reality into action. (Pun intended.) Make no mistake—this kind of accessibility and practical use (even if the purpose is just to have fun) represents the AR applications of the future.

As I’ve stated before, Pokémon Go is the comfortable introduction to AR that the public needs. The game helped get people used to what the future can offer, without requiring something as intrusive as a camera and screen strapped to the side of one’s head. People are comfortable with little games like this, just as they enjoy using Snapchat filters to place doggie ears on their friends, or a crown of butterflies on their selfies in real time.

Mobile Brings AR to Everyone

Now that people are becoming more comfortable with AR as part of their daily lives, the real revolution can begin. AR has had the potential to change the way we interact with the world, but it was previously hobbled by a ridiculously large price tag and awkward equipment. There are many exciting products coming to the market that may find some success. Microsoft Hololens is shaping up to be a market shifter, and once anyone figures out what Magic Leap is, it may find success as well. But those products will compete with a device that nearly everyone owns already and uses every day—the smartphone.

That’s right. The humble smartphone appears to be the big mover in the AR game. Almost everyone has one, and they’re extremely developer-friendly. Write a program for one platform, port it to the other, and suddenly the next hot app is available to one billion units in the hands of potential customers. Developers can price their apps as low as $0.99, though they’re much more likely to be free to consumers and supported by ads. The bar to entry in the AR market has never been lower.

The question now becomes: “What’s the next groundbreaking AR app going to be?” It’s an exciting concept, especially now that people are comfortable—thanks to Pokémon Go—to viewing the world through their phones.

Just one more killer app in the augmented-reality space would push demand over the edge, eventually driving consumer demand for more useful and creative functions. This will also drive prices down for dedicated AR devices—after all, they will, essentially, be competing with free offerings available on affordable smartphones. Either way, it’s exciting to watch the future of AR unfold. I think we’re about to see a lot of movement in this market.

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Photo Credit: yantramstudio Flickr via Compfight cc

Daniel Newman

After 12 years of running technology companies including a CEO appointment at the age of 28, I traded the corner office for a chance to drive the discussion on how the digital economy is going to forever change how business is done. I'm an MBA, adjunct business professor and 5x author of best-selling business books including "The Millennial CEO" and "The New Rules of Customer Engagement." Pianist, soccer fan, husband and father, not in that order. Oh and for work...I'm the CEO of Broadsuite Media Group and President of V3 Broadsuite, a family of marketing and media agencies that help companies be found, seen and heard in a cluttered digital world. I also give keynote speeches around the world on the topics such as digital transformation, technology and marketing.