Back in 2014, augmented reality (AR) was still a trend-to-watch at tech conferences. Now it’s everywhere with popular apps such as Pokemon Go and Snapchat allowing users to superimpose digital information onto their view of the surrounding world.
The sudden turn from the obscure cousin of virtual reality (VR) — which has been around since at least the 1990s, when bulky 3D arcade games sprung up at malls and shopping strips — to a regular feature on smartphones has some companies eager to explore the commercial uses of AR.
“I want to get people excited about the possibilities and help them understand what AR is and how they can use if for,” said David Wallin, manager of innovation at The Archer Group, a Wilmington-based digital marketing firm with an interest incorporating AR into its services.
But pushing the medium beyond fun, accessible phone apps requires getting clients to understand its potential.
“Personally I haven’t found a great deal of interest yet,” said Richard Trask, managing partner of Digitaleye, a website and app development firm in Wilmington that launched an AR division last November. “Some people have trouble telling the difference between AR and VR.”
Wallin and The Archer Group joined other AR boosters, including Philadelphia-based marketing and design firm Allen & Gerritsen, earlier this month for an event organized by the Technology Forum of Delaware to promote and help people understand the difference between the two very different technologies.
“With VR you’re completely immersed. With AR you can see visual information laid over top of the real world,” Wallin said. “Myself and a lot of other people feel AR is going to be a lot more accessible to people and have a lot more uses.”
Wallin has experimented with both. This year, the firm used VR to prototype a touch screen interface it designed for Wawa, the regional convenience store chain. The designers were able to simulate using the screen as customers. It also allowed the client to take their product out for a test drive. “It really helped them understand why we made the decisions that we made,” he said.
VR is perfect for that kind of back-end stuff, Wallin added. But for consumers, the cost of picking up a new VR headset can be prohibitive. Some of the best-known brands, including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR, range between $400-$800. AR tech is available in all Google and Apple phone products. These built-in platforms, called ARCore for Google and ARKit for Apple, provide companies a foundation for creating new applications.
Trask said there are five areas where he thinks AR tech holds the most promise: health care, automotive repair, cities/utilities, retail marketing and architecture. With utilities, for instance, he said AR could be used to help road workers identify the location of infrastructure below the asphalt. Builders, similarly, could use AR to see architectural designs projected against the actual construction site.
These are just some of his big-picture ideas. In large part, Trask said, what kinds of products get created depend entirely on which industries take an interest in the technology.
One attendee of the Technology Forum event expressed an open-mindedness about the potential of AR.
“I don’t know how it might work, but I’m interested,” said Don McNeill, account executive for Cann Printing, a commercial printing company in Wilmington. He speculated if it could help show print samples to customers outside of Delaware.
Another attendee, Sarena Fletcher, head of emerging technologies for the Delaware Division of Libraries, said she is still struggling to see the value.“I understand that it can be practical, but it still seems a little like fiction,” she said.
The Archer Group will be talking with clients in the coming year to determine interest and possible applications. Wallin said customer needs and interest will shape what’s to come.
“We always try to find what the clients needs are first,” Wallin said. “We really want to understand what their goals are, and if it makes sense then we will suggest it.”
Digitaleye, meanwhile, has completed several demos for AR tools developed in-house. Now it just needs to find people who may want to buy them.
“I think it’s just a question of communicating what’s possible,” Trask said.