Augmented reality is still mostly used by early tech adopters, but it’s starting to graze the mainstream, helped by the massive popularity of smartphones and tablets, and their constantly improving processors and sensors, along with the growth of high-speed wireless data networks. Apps featuring augmented reality are available for everything from gaming to driving to furniture arrangement. Slowly but surely, augmented reality is becoming less of a novelty and more of a utility.
Early augmented-reality smartphone apps used a device’s GPS and digital compass to determine your location and direction. More recently, app makers have begun incorporating computer vision and increasingly powerful processors to provide greater accuracy.
Jon Fisher, CEO and cofounder of San Francisco-based CrowdOptic, is one entrepreneur trying to take augmented reality mainstream. His startup’s software can recognize the direction in which a crowd of people have their phones pointed while taking photos or videos at events, and invite the group to communicate, share content, or get more information about the object of their attention, via an app.
The software uses a smartphone’s GPS, accelerometer, and compass to determine a user’s position and line of site; but also to triangulate with other phones using the same software to determine specifically what everyone in a cluster is looking at. The company’s technology has been used in a number of apps, including one for a recent NASCAR race in which fans, who couldn’t see the entire 2.5-mile track, could point their phones at distant turns and get photos and videos generated by others who were closer to the action.
Another company, iOnRoad, offers an augmented-reality collision-warning app for drivers using smartphones that run Google’s Android software (an iPhone version is in the works).
For augmented reality to really become popular, however, a widespread number of apps will have to adopt it. Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin believes the breakthrough could be apps for museums or zoos—while standing cage-side, you might hold up your smartphone to learn more about a bear or a giraffe, for example.
In fact, several zoos and museums already have experimented with the technology. At Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, for example, visitors can use iPads at a dinosaur exhibit to see how the beasts would have looked in real life. And augmented reality is about to get its biggest mass-market push yet: Swedish furniture maker Ikea’s 2013 catalog, 211 million copies of which were shipped out Wednesday, includes additional content that readers can see with an Android or iOS app.
The move could be a good one, Bajarin says, assuming it works well. “You don’t want people to try it and hate it, and go, ‘Eh, I’m not going to use that again,’ ” he says.