AR is somehow both old and new news.

Pokemon Go. The dancing hot dog. Google Glass. That thin yellow line on football broadcasts representing the first down marker. These are all examples of augmented reality.

AR is not new. We’ve used Snapchat’s facial augmentations (see: digital sunglasses, makeup, and bunny ears) for years. But until 2017, the engineers and designers actually creating AR experiences were acting behind a closed curtain. In the last year, the tech giants of the world – Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and now Snapchat – dramatically threw the curtain aside and proclaimed that anyone and everyone can create an AR experience.

Here’s the trade-off: what we gain in development ease-of-use (native SDKs, integration into existing workflows) and performance enhancements (load times, battery efficiency, render quality, integration with native apps), we lose in universality; naturally, each company wants you staying within its own ecosystem.

In a nutshell: new AR platforms from today’s tech giants are aimed at reducing technical headache so you can focus on creating amazing experiences… but they also want you creating more apps for their respective mobile ecosystems.

 AR examples

Almost everyone has AR. But we still don’t “get it.”

The numbers are dizzying. As of this article’s publish date, over half a billion mobile devices can leverage this new native technology (between most Android operating systems and iOS11). Stack that on top of the Facebook’s 900 million daily active mobile app users and suddenly it feels ubiquitous. 

Despite this, less than a third of Americans know about AR (31 percent), and why should they? Augmented cat ears and face swapping loses its novelty after 8 seconds. As we all slowly (and begrudgingly) upgrade devices and operating systems to include AR capabilities, what real value can we expect? As it turns out, it’s a lot. 

 

Introduction to every (major) AR development platform

First, it’s important to understand what’s going on under the hood. Just like browsers, gaming consoles, and just about every modern consumer technology, competing platforms with nuanced differences influence the future of the product. 

If you’re already familiar with AR development at a high level, I’ve written a deep dive into every major AR platform. Learn about the real differences in functionality, features, development processes, and marketing tactics between Apple, Google, Facebook, Snap, and Amazon. It’s borderline overkill. So. Much. Detail. Enjoy! 

For now, here’s the important stuff.

ARGrid3

google appleApple ARKit & Google ARCore:

Basically the same, both Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore are designed to help developers/makers/brands create AR functionality for their existing (and future) mobile apps. More specifically, Apple and Google encourage back-camera use and plane detection to place 3D objects in real, physical space. For example you can try out different car colors (ARKit), find your friends (ARKit), or learn how to operate a complicated espresso machine (ARCore). 

They’re the same save for 3 very nuanced differences: Google plans to integrate heavily with Google Lens and search to make AR more informational/contextual; you can create experiences in 5 development environments with ARCore (compared to ARKit’s one, for now). Both companies are marketing equally quirky yet disparate OS-integrated AR functionalities (Animojis for Apple, AR Stickers for Google).

snapSnapchat Lens Studio:

Contrary to what you’d assume, Snapchat Lens Studio is no place for creating facial augmentations. You can only create “World Lenses” (i.e. digital objects around you like the dancing hot dog, no cat ears or giant watery anime eyes for your face). It’s similar to Google and Apple in that way. Past that, they’re worlds apart. Snapchat Lens Studio is a desktop application with a graphical user interface (rather than a traditional “coding” environment).

The other big differentiator: Snapcodes. These are generated QR codes that enable creators to instantly share their AR experiences with friends and family. Imagine a small business places a Snapcode outside their store or there’s a Snapcode on the wall at a friend’s birthday party – simply scan the code within Snapchat’s app and boom, custom filter.

fbFacebook AR Studio:

While GOOG/AAPL/FB all fall under the designation of “tech company,” Facebook is social-first. Also, they have a track record for emulating… okay, stealing Snapchat’s thunder. Naturally the result was AR Studio, an integrated desktop application for developers to create augmented reality experiences for the Facebook camera that – here’s the kicker – are mostly front-facing.

Built into Facebook’s platform are facial cues to trigger animations (e.g. raise your eyebrows) and segmentation to separate people from the background (think green screen). It should be noted that similar facial functionality is available in Snapchat Lens Studio, but it’s reserved for brands and select agencies (for now).

awsAmazon Sumerian:

Then things got weird. While other tech giants are targeting creators, Amazon is targeting corporations. The product is described as a solution to many logistical problems global companies face – expensive employee education, inefficient training simulations, and field service productivity.

Sumerian’s real differentiator: it’s “platform-agnostic”. You can run whatever you build on Rift, Vive, iOS devices (aka ARKit) and – soon – Android devices. This is possible because you edit in-browser (thanks to WebGL). There’s one more feature that’s worth mentioning: Hosts. Hosts are like creepy, highly intelligent Sims characters. Think of them as avatars put there to guide you through an AR or VR experience. Customize their look and, more importantly, their conversational UI and AI. They can be your guide, protagonist, or trainer.

 

What real value can we expect?

While each AR Platform will evolve over time, they all have apparent use cases. The breakdown is simple:

ARKit and ARCore – with built in light estimation, quick processing speeds, and surface detection – are perfect for turning your house into a show room, taking measurements, or solving insane 3D puzzles.

Lens Studio and AR Studio – with obvious  integrated social features – are great for making shareable content even more shareable.

And finally, Amazon Sumerian – with the integration with the AWS ecosystem – is an enterprise solution for companies looking to get into AR/VR.

There are obvious use cases, yes, but each is designed to put the creative power in the hands of the creator. In other words, there’s nothing saying you can’t create a social application in ARKit (as you’ll see below). This means that with enough design, programming, and marketing prowess, you can make almost anything come to life in any of the platforms.

At ISL, we’ve been deep in AR land since the first platform was unveiled (AR Studio). Since then we’ve experimented with each platform, creating prototypes that reveal secret menus (ARKit), turn you into a pro sports mascot (AR Studio, made in partnership with the Washington Capitals), and send the author of this post down a coastal highway (AR Studio). Most recently, we created a portal (above) that transports you to an Instagram user’s digital art gallery, where the artwork on the walls are their most “liked” photos on Instagram. Images are pulled dynamically, so when a new photo enters the top 6, it replaces one in the gallery. See how we built it here.

We’re also experimenting with what we call “AR IRL.” Always trying to connect the digital and physical worlds, we’ve begun prototyping AR experiences that interact with real life objects. For example, pressing a digital button triggers a real life LED light (see demo below).

 

Conclusion

Remember when IoT became the buzzworthiest thing in tech? First it was practical, then came the internet-connected cups, crock pots, and credit cards. We (being humanity) will inevitably make the same mistake with AR. Creators, brands, and developers need to ask themselves: “does my idea/product/app need augmented reality?” These platforms were designed with a pseudo open-source ethos – if you can imagine it, you can build it. This will lead to some beautiful, useful, and downright weird mobile experiences. I, for one, am excited for the future. 

Contact Me

Talk to me. Let me know if you have thoughts, comments, or questions – js@isl.co. Cheers!