AR Outlook: Why 2020 was prelude to hot 2021 AR sector

Predictions and reflections on an AR landscape transformed by COVID and finally coming into its own.

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The past year will be remembered for many things. While it might not be first on anyone's list, one of the things 2020 lays claim to is being the year when augmented reality finally became a serious force in the enterprise and as a consumer product.

The story of 2020 ...

Back in May, with the pandemic in full swing and the world settling in for a long and uncertain haul, I caught up with Munjeet Singh, Senior Vice President who leads consulting firm Booz Allen's immersive computing practice, to understand just how much COVID-19 was rewriting the script for immersive technologies like augmented reality.

Talking of immersive technologies, Singh emphasized that for enterprise purposes like meetings, presentations, and virtual conferences, AR and other mixed reality applications were something companies were exploring even before the pandemic, but that adoption and consideration had skyrocketed with so many employees working remotely. He said the technologies were becoming "viable and necessary" tools for many enterprises.

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"Virtual training has already been a significant use case for XR in recent years," Singh told me. "We've seen industries like healthcare, oil & gas, mining and defense all turn to this technology for their training needs." He added, "In addition to training we've seen an uptick in the number of clients looking for Digital Twins - a digital replica of a physical environment or device - for planning purposes, both related to COVID-19 and other needs. By creating a Digital Twin, organizations can visualize and map out physical movements and changes before committing to anything permanently."

Looking back at the year gone by, it's clear that 2020 was an important horizon year. I connected with Jon Cheney, CEO & co-founder Seek, a firm specializing in platform agnostic AR solutions for business and commerce. He notes that 2020 was the year AR advertising boomed and the technology cemented itself as a powerful channel.

"AR neared a tipping point with brands finally beginning to understand the technology's true value as a media and marketing tool, and third party providers working hard to break down barriers to entry," says Cheney. "We watched new and exciting experiences for mobile users to interact with their favorite brands, including one popular fast food joint introducing a Hip Hop program triggered with a huge QR code in the middle of the tv commercial. AR became a must have for many brands and retailers. Physical retail came to a screeching halt and this forced many companies to jump into gear and begin the process of AR."

Which brings us to 2021 ...

Of course, 2020 was an outlier in nearly every way. Can we expect 2021 to continue the rise of AR, particularly when COVID-related pressures ease?

First, it's important to remember that COVID will have a massive impact on 2021, even in the best of scenarios. In an email, David Witkowski, IEEE Senior Member, cites lingering health risks as a factor in AR's continuing growth.

"In 2021, AR/VR will continue to remain important as society continues to focus on generating economic growth while avoiding health risks. Consider the changes we saw in 2020, where, for example, real estate home showings were conducted via video walkthroughs and virtual tours; this virtualization of commerce will grow and extend into other industries in 2021."

But the projected growth is more than a COVID bandaid. In fact, there's every reason to believe 3D content will become ubiquitous in the year ahead.

"Similar to how images and video content are used by nearly every company in the world, as more platforms enable interactive use cases for 3D/AR models it will become an invaluable marketing channel that cannot be ignored," says Cheney. "Longer term, as popularity grows, we can expect the standard file format for 3D models to become universally supported, just like PNG or JPEG are for 2D images. This will lower barriers to entry and democratize the technology even further."

Like IEEE's Witkowski, Cheney believes the technology is primed to jump to new industries and vastly extend its footprint.

"By this time next year we can expect to see significant software improvements to AR," says Cheney, "as well as better connections between spatial platforms. This increase in accessibility will drive further integration into a broad range of industries such as teaching, training, marketing, and tourism. Businesses will build AR strategies into their business models in order to stay ahead of the curve and reach consumers where they are, on their phones."

Some of that spread will be aided by adjacent technologies, including 5G, Mobile Edge Computing, and the Spatial Web. These are cutting edge technologies, and there's good reason to believe negative reactions to the current ad serving paradigm will cast AR in a favorable light.

"AR will step in as a refreshing evolution to the fatigue the media industry has been stuck delivering with its endless scrolls of videos and photos," says Cheney. "The medium is still new and it's up to the creatives and pioneers to deliver as vibrant a 3D world online as the one we inhabit in real life. We expect to see AR really start to do what it was designed to do next year: create digital content that augments, rather than distracts us from our reality."

That reality, of course, will start off as virtual. Virtual events will be a mainstay of the culture for a long time to come, and AR will play a key role.

"2021 will be a time of innovation for virtual events. With our world being more virtual than ever, we've been stretched to think outside of the box in ways that we can still connect, interact, and experience events together. AR is the future of virtual events, providing an interactive experience that engages the customer and immerses them into the technology. This will not only be a wide adoption for event coordinators, but also trade shows, exhibitions, webinars, conferences, meetings, and more. This is the solution to the all too familiar, "Zoom Fatigue" that consumers have been experiencing in 2020."

We'll be tracking the next year in AR's spread closely here at ZDNet. It's a technology class that's been marred by overhype and under-delivery, but 2021 does feel like an opportunity for developers and evangelists to make the case for augmented reality.