Users not waking up to augmented reality apps

Augmented reality mobile apps gaining acceptance but technology issues and poor design and application lead to loss of user interest, say industry watchers.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor on

Augmented reality (AR) apps are still in their infancy, held back by various factors including technology issues and a lack of understanding of how they can be applied and used, say analysts.

The global scale of adoption of AR apps has been lower than anticipated and the concept of AR is still not widely understood by the public, Windsor Holden, principal analyst at Juniper Research, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview.

Neil Strother, practice director at ABI Research, also noted that it was still early in the game for AR, with many developers still experimenting and just only scratching the surface of AR capabilities.

According to him, battery drain, poor registration of a user's location, low smartphone penetration and mobile fragmentation are some reasons why AR apps are not taking off. In addition, users are inconvenienced as they have to hold up their phones to access content, he added in an e-mail.

Peter Ellenby, new media director of GeoVector Corporation which patents were recently licensed by Microsoft, also pointed to the lack of a major player in the AR space as a challenge for the industry.

"Users typically trust a few sources for search and local information, so as soon as the major players have serious AR and 'pointing' offerings, the market will explode," Ellenby said. "The large content providers and owners have also been waiting for a major player to enter this space before committing."

AR apps 1.0 unimpressive
Strother of ABI Research noted that the novelty of AR apps was short-lived--they had "a 'wow' factor that grabbed users initially" but after several times, users "merely shrug".

Initial AR apps, added Juniper Research's Holden, created a poor first impression amongst users. "Many of the first AR apps were essentially one-trick ponies, designed to demonstrate in fairly broad terms what AR was.

"As a result, few of these apps had much depth or 'stickiness' and many appeared as little more than a gimmick," he explained.

Holden said the problem AR apps face was similar to three-dimensional (3D) technology in the film industry, where in many cases 3D was bolted on as a commercial afterthought. Many an app, he pointed out, was designed without AR at its heart and hence not compelling or attractive.

However, Holden maintained that the growth in AR app downloads worldwide was substantial in 2010, increasing to over 11 million from less than 1million in 2009. The rise was largely driven by the activity of key players in the sector such as Qualcomm and the growing recognition of AR by advertisers which launched ad-hoc activities that tapped the technology, he said.

In addition, a 2010 report by Juniper Research showed that by 2015, nearly 1.4 billion mobile applications with AR elements will be downloaded annually. The analyst firm also predicted that annual revenues generated by mobile AR apps and services will reach US$1.5 billion by 2015, up from less than US$2 million in 2010.

Some AR app developers ZDNet Asia contacted noted an uptrend in AR app acceptance. Aroon Tan, managing director and co-founder of Magma Studios which launched the Terracotta Warriors AR app last month, reported in an e-mail that the app has been registered about 10,000 downloads since its release.

Philippe Depassario, Asia-Pacific head of Total Immersion, said in a phone interview that over the past four years, the company's revenue had doubled and its headcount had grown from 10 to 100 people.

Room for improvement
On how AR apps can be improved to appeal more to consumers, Holden said that techniques such as computer vision should be utilized to enhance the AR experience, in addition to the location-based and orientation technologies.

Magma Studios' Tan said the most important draw factor for users is a blend of an entertaining interactive story with the AR and mini-games experience, designed for mass market smartphones. "It is not just a standalone AR simulation of computer graphics over a real-world situation experienced with a Web cam," he said.

ABI Research's Strother noted that AR apps should be more convenient and user-friendly, and rely less on the camera. AR, he explained, needs to move away from the "pull" model of using the camera to pull AR data to a "push" model where consumers can receive AR data in a seamless fashion.

Adoption will also grow when AR content is embedded into general purpose apps, he said.

This transformation, he admitted, will take some time to develop. "It is too early to say AR has failed.

"It's one of the newer technologies that needs time to reach its potential and it won't necessarily move in a straight line," said Strother.

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