2019: The year AR finally goes from 'unsexy' to cool?

The AR Cloud, ruggedized hardware, and a consumer-friendly app ecosystem. Could 2019 be the year this technology breaks out of the novelty phase?

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Augmented Reality is still pretty lame. Sorry, I know that's a broad brush to paint an increasingly diverse technology category, but that's my professional opinion.

On the enterprise side, AR is finally showing some indications of becoming genuinely useful, particularly in sectors like field service, but adoption has been uneven. On the consumer side, it's pretty much all face swaps and cheesy marketing "experiences" crafted for brands conned by marketing teams into thinking they're in danger of missing a phantom wave of mixed reality adoption.

But if AR is still sputtering, it's equally true the category has tremendous potential and is bound to change the way we interact with and interpret our world.

Also: 5 strategies for navigating VR in the enterprise TechRepublic

To get some insight on how and where AR will progress in 2019, I reached out to Scott Montgomerie, co-founder and CEO of Scope AR, a company that crafts enterprise AR solutions for various industries. Here are three areas where we can expect significant leaps forward in 2019.

Hardware will become more ruggedized

There's a big barrier inhibiting AR adoption right now: Many of the sectors that could most benefit from AR require workers to go into demanding environments that are brutal on hardware.

"While more and more companies are using AR glasses or headsets," says Montgomerie, "they are still fragile and expensive. As such, users are hesitant to bring them to high risk environments, such as a construction site or an oil rig, where they could easily get broken."

That should change in 2019. Microsoft's HoloLens 2 is expected to launch, likely adding durability to one of the most popular enterprise headsets. More than 75 percent of respondents in Digi-Capital's Augmented/Virtual Reality Report pointed to Microsoft HoloLens as the smartglasses platform that matters most to their company.

Several other companies, including Apple, are working on AR devices as well, and it's a sure bet they're eyeing use cases that will require a measure of durability.

Progress around the AR Cloud will lead to a new level of collaboration

Some definitions are in order. The AR Cloud is a digital copy of the real world that's accessible to everyone, and it's going to be really important. How important?

"The AR Cloud will be the single most important software infrastructure in computing, far more valuable than Facebook's social graph or Google's pagerank index," says Augmented World Expo Founder and CEO Ori Inbar.

That statement makes sense if you can envision a future in which digital information about people, objects, and places will be derived not from Googling them using text but from training a camera at them. When a publicly accessible digital copy of the real world is complete, training an AR device at just about anything will yield a wealth of information.

There's a race underway now to control the AR Cloud. Google, which has paved the way with its Street View efforts, is firmly in the lead, but there's been a groundswell of activity in the area.

Also: VR: It's time to break up CNET

"The progress being made on the AR Cloud will unlock a new set of use cases and allow co-workers (or consumers) to communicate in an unprecedented way that's more precise and location-specific," Montgomerie told me. "Several startups who are working solely on AR Cloud development came out of stealth mode this year."

Among the most promising efforts, the Open AR Cloud Organization was unveiled at AWE EU in mid-October.

Because an AR Cloud will be interoperable and available to everyone, it promotes multiplayer AR experiences. Two people working on an oil rig can access complementary technical and sensor data in real time, for instance, aiding enterprise collaboration. Two consumers will be able to enjoy the same AR experience on different devices, bringing a social aspect to a technology that's been single player so far.

2019 is the year in which we'll see the launch of the industry's first practical consumer applications

Apple's ARKit and Google's ARCore debuted in the second half of 2017. That timing is important, because it means developers and startups have now had enough time to get their feet wet with the technology and gauge market response to begin producing meaningful consumer apps.

"About a year and a half after the original Apple App store launched, developers finally learned how to leverage a touch screen to build engaging and useful user interfaces, and app development exploded," explains Montgomerie. "AR app development requires a whole new way of thinking. Much like the iPhone's user experience required a transition from mouse-and-keyboard interaction to touch, AR experiences require a new method of interaction."

Fortunately, Montgomerie believes developers are and consumers alike are becoming fluent in these new modes of technology interaction.

Also: Augmented and virtual reality mean business

"We're starting to see the signs that mobile AR is following the same growth trajectory as mobile apps."

If that's true, expect the technology to finally escape the doldrums of face swaps and tacky brand promotions in the year ahead.

Previous and related coverage:

Oculus launches Quest standalone VR headset, eyes mixed reality future

Using Oculus Quest in a mixed reality demo, Facebook showed off a workplace scenario where real world objects are integrated into VR.

Walmart deploys 17,000 Oculus Go headsets to train its employees

Walmart said it is using the headsets to train within three key areas: new technology, compliance, and soft skills like empathy and customer service.

Porsche and Hyundai behind AR hologram company's $80M raise

Forget headsets. The future of AR/VR is in seamless integrations with in-demand consumer products.

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