Spatial computing comes to the enterprise (and other predictions for AR in 2020)

A look back at the year in AR, as well as predictions for what 2020 has in store.

2020 is shaping up to be the year of augmented reality Greg Nichols looks back and glances ahead at the biggest trends in AR and spatial computing. Read more: https://zd.net/2EfpRyz

Augmented reality doesn't get the love that virtual reality does. It's inherently less flashy, confined now mostly to our phones as opposed to snazzy headsets.

But AR is going to dominate the world before too long precisely because it's native to the mobile devices we already rely on. Like it or not, AR offers the promise of turning the real world into a clickable, searchable, data-infused experience. Soon you'll be able to point your phone at virtually any object and pull up relevant data or place a quick order. Forget a Facebook profile, you'll soon be able to point a phone at a stranger and pull up relevant deets. 

That's a scary prospect, and perhaps fortunately AR is still in its infancy. In fact, for the most part it's been gimmicky and relegated to the landscape of marketers and hokey brand activations.

That's starting to change. I spoke with Caspar Thykier, CEO and co-founder of Zappar, a mixed reality solutions company, and got a look back at 2019 and a look forward to what's in store for AR in 2020. Here's what he has to say about what happened in AR in 2019 and what's in store.

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Looking back on 2019…

Connected packaging got a boost

Though already cementing itself as a reliable campaign strategy, we saw connected packaging adoption swell thanks to some big industry hitters. Companies like Nestle, McDonalds and Danone all demonstrated how big businesses can approach the opportunity for AR on a global scale, further legitimizing the technology and creating a ripple effect that hopefully other brands are paying attention to.

Spatial computing made its mark as a tool for learning, training and development

As we've become increasingly familiar with the positive effects AR has on attention and memory encoding, it was exciting to see AR's adoption expand outside of a marketing context. In the workplace we observed practical applications of AR in areas such as employee onboarding, training, and professional development, with empirical evidence highlighting AR's power to drive efficiencies, time to competency and memory recall — galvanizing a disconnected workforce and helping reduce overheads. Pizza chain Papa Murphy's, for example, continue to leverage AR for its employee onboarding program by creating AR-powered stations at key training locations. These types of use cases are becoming increasingly common across a variety of industries — from financial services to healthcare, large consumer goods conglomerates to higher education and vocational learning institutions. As more businesses trial the technology and best use cases get shared, the more adoption we'll see and the more mainstream AR will become as an L&D tool.

Improved camera tech is enabling better campaigns

Camera technology for smartphones continued to be one of the headlines for hardware manufacturers trying to entice customers to their new products. Between the new iPhone 11 and Pixel 4's increasingly advanced camera functionality, the opportunity for more advanced AR campaigns is ripe. Thanks to improving technology, more creative decisions have been enabled in terms of how a user interacts with AR. This has a lasting effect — new depth cameras and wide angle lenses will continue to underpin the potential for richer AR experiences in the future.

Speaking of the future, as technology continues to improve and become more streamlined, 2020 is shaping up to have a lot in store for us.

Looking forward to 2020…

Mobile WebAR matures

With the global market of WebAR-compatible devices approaching 3 billion and as standards continue to improve, mobile WebAR is set to become a key delivery platform for immersive experiences. This will be fueled by smaller businesses who don't have the budget to maintain an app and large CPG brands who have no need for one. However, it's worth noting that while WebAR is a promising and exciting technology, some content is still best served through native apps — think loyalty apps for retailers, fan apps for sports or gaming apps. Most importantly, together both technologies will drive more mainstream adoption of AR.

5G makes an impact

The conversation around 5G and how it will affect a vast number of industries is currently buzzing. The AR world is no exception. What has many excited is 5G's ability to remove AR's reliance on a strong WiFi signal, allowing for greater flexibility in use case and environment. In 2020, we can expect 5G to super-charge AR campaigns designed for use in live and outdoor environments, such as conferences, concerts, and sports games — spaces where reliable Wi-Fi connection is currently a luxury. These activations would be greatly improved by the power and speed of 5G, while allowing designers to further push the boundaries of their creativity.

Excitement around wearables hits a fever pitch

The talk around wearables has already been dubbed the "Face Race." We expect the hype cycle is going to jump exponentially when AR glasses with heads-up displays enter the conversation. Many of these programs will be fusing audio and visual information with gesture control, and bringing the technologies together is going to get users and designers more excited about the intersections between AR and wearable tech. At this point we should also note that while AR and VR seem to often be pitted against each other, they are fundamentally different experiences. The relationship between them is not a zero-sum game because both offer value in unique ways with independent life cycles. In terms of wearables, the distinction to be made is that AR's inherent relationship with mobile devices may make it more ubiquitous, while VR requires specialized hardware that has only recently become more affordable to the average consumer. All of that said, content is still the most important element in these experiences, and that is what brands should always stay focused on.

AR becomes a more legitimate ad platform

We predict that the media world will begin to wake up to the power of AR as a programmatic ad format for greater engagement and interaction. We'll also begin to see the creation of a whole new outdoor AR landscape for advertising governed by new rules of permission and usage. In other words, as with every year, there are going to be more instances of people having that light bulb moment for how AR can work for them. Recently, Modelo ran a visually stunning incredible out-of-home AR campaign celebrating Dia De Los Muertos. Users were encouraged to point their phone camera at a special mural depicting traditional imagery, like a Katrina surrounded by marigolds, and watch it come to life through their screen. This is just one example of campaigns beginning to take an extra step toward driving interactions with customers in varied and creative environments.

The continued move toward always-on AR

Imagine a world in which AR is completely integrated into our society and functioning at a constant capacity, rather than one-off marketing or storytelling campaigns. Imagine AR experiences become the norm, instead of a cool outlier. This is the dream we've always had for AR, and each year we get a little closer to seeing it realized. This will likely be accelerated through a reduced cost and improvement in 3D pipelines, new AR creation tools and hardware capabilities that we may see next year, and the advent of 5G.