The most common way for people to experience Augmented Reality (AR) today is via their mobile phones as opposed to wearable devices like glasses or even device-free AR. For a variety of reasons including cost, availability and social norms, most agree this is likely to remain the status quo for the foreseeable future.
One thing that does look set to change is the way the phones themselves access AR content. To date, downloadable apps have been the main source but this creates a challenge: not only do we have to make the experience itself appealing, we also have to motivate people to download an app in order view it.
A now-infamous 2017 study in the US confirmed that, on average, the majority of consumers download zero apps per month. This created a bit of a panic for mobile immersive tech businesses – what are we going to do if no-one is downloading apps?!
Well, let’s not panic just yet. First, once you get beyond the headline the data actually showed that many people do download apps given sufficient reason to do so. And second, another potentially more powerful answer lies in the emergent space of app-less AR experiences, or what has been coined ‘WebAR’.
This is the growing ability of the web browsers in our phones to recognise, position and serve up AR content, without the need for any app downloads. An example comes from Google, who are using WebAR to add AR search results to certain objects, including many animals (left).
Here, Arcade CEO Jon Meggitt and MD of Arcade Netherlands, Sten Duindam, about the rise of WebAR, what it means for the industry and, most importantly, the impact it could have on the role of AR in everyday life.
What is Web AR and why does it matter?
Jon Meggitt: WebAR is the catch-all term for describing the provision of augmented reality experiences via the mobile web browser. It is being driven forward by individual developers and large technology companies alike, who have all understood why it’s going to be such a game-changer when the public can access AR just as easily as they do a website today.
What are the biggest benefits that WebAR offers?
Sten Duindam: In many ways WebAR is just much less hassle for the user. That’s for two reasons: it removes the barrier of app download and it works on older devices.
JM: Exactly, those two advantages over app-based AR combine to create a much higher chance of mass user adoption, which means the value and potential reach of an AR experience that we create goes through the roof.
What limitations are there in using WebAR vs native apps?
JM: Well, it is true that the mass accessibility of WebAR does come with a few compromises, for now at least.
SD: When you develop apps for a specific operating system like iOS or Android, you can leverage the most efficient practices and functionalities to that operating system. But you can’t do that with WebAR, where it’s one experience for everyone. You also don’t get full access to a device’s computing power. Native apps use the processors of the device, whereas web applications are limited by the processing speed of the various browsers.
JM: Which is why the industry typically estimates that WebAR functionality is around 12 months behind what can be achieved in native apps, so you do have to take that into account when designing for WebAR. But firstly that gap is closing as more of the big players recognise the importance and value that WebAR offers, and second it’s not always a bad thing to be a bit conservative in the AR features you use – they tend to be more reliable!
How would you advise organisations interested in AR to choose which method to pursue – native apps or WebAR?
JM: One of the biggest considerations for almost every project we work on is: “how many people will use it?”. If we’re working with native apps, as we have been for much of our work with Merlin’s SEA LIFE and Madame Tussauds for example, then a big part of the challenge is to work out how to promote the app and motivate people to download it. We can help with marketing, and we’ve got plenty of experience in what works and what doesn’t, but it inevitably puts more responsibility on the client and their marketing teams, which may not always have the resources to give it the focus it needs.
SD: The right approach is to first focus on the concept and only then decide on a technology. But I totally agree with Jon, it is becoming gradually easier to create WebAR experiences that have enough of the AR ‘wow factor’ to deliver against more and more of the briefs we receive, and the seamless access it gives people is incredibly valuable. So it should almost always be part of the consideration.
What are your predictions for the future of mobile AR and what impact is WebAR going to have on the way we use AR in general?
JM: We are living through what our CSO, Alex Book, calls the ‘normalisation’ of AR. With WebAR making it easier and easier for people to access and use AR as a part of their everyday lives, it is undoubtedly one of the big factors that is going to help AR fulfil its potential, and justify the excitement that’s been surrounding it for so many years.
SD: Exactly. We all know wearables are going to become the norm at some point, but when that is is still anyone’s guess. But in my view the biggest step towards wearables isn’t necessarily technology; the audience needs to play with AR some more and get accustomed to it. Once it is normalised, the mass adoption of AR that follows is going to be the thing that finally makes wearables normal too – and WebAR is going to have a huge part to play.