A new generation of augmented reality apps hints at the future of human-computer interaction. But what exactly does the future of AR hold in store?

Steve Hogarty
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Visual effects artist Vernon James Manlapaz creates bizarre videos that merge the real world with an imagined one, at times very convincingly. His Instagram feed is filled with these short, strange clips, all seemingly filmed on his smartphone.

A doughnut the size of a Mini Cooper rolling down an empty Los Angeles boulevard and chased by a bear running on its hind legs is easy to dismiss as mad, computer-generated fiction, but more believable is the footage of Manlapaz walking through a sunny park, surrounded on all sides by realistic-looking giant broccoli and six-foot slices of pepperoni pizza. One commenter even asks if the vegetables are a permanent installation, and if so where he could find them.

“I think it’s visually appealing to see everyday objects made larger than life,” says Manlapaz of his whimsical food enlargement project. “People can connect with objects they see on a daily basis, like food. I just want the output to be fun, and to capture the audience’s imagination.”

By 2021, says Belleghem, the concept of the smartphone as we know it will have begun to vanish, as it becomes subsumed into a new form of interface that’s powered by AR.

Augmented reality – layering graphics and information over the real world, typically through a smartphone camera lens – is one of the newest and fastest growing technologies around, and enthusiastic adoption by mobile giants Google, Samsung and Apple is fostering the nascent format through its early expansion. Augmented reality is distinct from virtual reality, which isolates and transports the viewer to an entirely virtual place; instead augmented reality changes, enhances or even deletes what’s already in front of us.

Doughnut-chasing cartoon bears aside, there are an increasing number of practical applications of the technology. In 2017, IKEA launched an app that allowed its customers to place virtual furniture in their homes or offices, using the smartphone’s camera to let potential sofa-buyers walk around and view their hypothetical furniture from different angles. Several apps let you point your camera at a wine bottle and have its provenance and reviews hover above it like an ominous ghost. Google Translate can replace most foreign language text with its translation on the fly. And the iPhone X can produce a virtual – and remarkably accurate – tape measure from thin air.

But it was in the summer of 2016, with the launch of Pokémon Go, that augmented reality first reached the mainstream. An overnight sensation, the monster catching app had players traipsing around real world locations and peering through handheld smartphone portals into a world populated by fantastic beasts. It is the relatively rudimentary tech of Pokémon Go – alongside the fanciful work of 3D artists, the dancing hotdogs of Snapchat and the flowery, dollifying filters of Instagram – that forms the thin end of an augmented reality wedge that’s potentially worth billions.

About $108bn by 2021, according to Professor Steven van Belleghem, author of Customers the Day After Tomorrow and a leading consumer behaviour expert. By then, he says, the concept of the smartphone as we know it will have begun to vanish, as it becomes subsumed into a new form of interface that’s powered by AR.

HYPER-REALITY. A short film from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

“Today, the smartphone is the most important distribution channel for AR, but many believe that the breakthrough of AR will eventually lead to the disappearance of the smartphone. Within the next five to 10 years a completely new set of interfaces will be developed specifically based on the many possibilities offered by AR. Microsoft HoloLens and Meta Vision glasses are the two most well-known examples at the moment.”

Microsoft’s HoloLens is already in the hands of developers and a select few consumers, a visor-style headset that allows multiple users to walk around and view the same holographic objects in the same shared space. Two designers can stomp around an architectural model, for example, like a pair of building-sized Robocops.

And launched in 2013, Google Glass is perhaps the search giant’s most recognisable failed experiment. A prototype pair of glasses with a camera and microphone built into the frame, it would transmit information such as directions and messages to a small screen in the corner of the lens. Five years later, rumours abound that an updated Google Glass is due to return, this time as part of the new AR revolution.

If augmented reality is to properly take hold, it will be through specialised glasses like these, and not our phone screens, that we experience this new, digitally edited version of the world around us. Today the hardware required to make wearable augmented reality work is bulky and conspicuous, like strapping a laptop to your forehead, but it’s shrinking about as quickly as the processing power behind it grows.

Microsoft HoloLens in action

“In the next 10 years, augmented reality will be the interface to the world around you,” says Steve Curran, CEO of Roar, an augmented reality platform for brands and businesses. “AR will be integrated into wearables such as glasses that actually look good, and are hands-free, with interactions coming from voice, gesture, and eye-tracking.”

“Phones are just the beginning,” says Guy Bradbury, founder at creative agency Atomic London. “Have you seen a pair of AR glasses? Would you wear them consistently? Like we saw with mobile phones, the technology needs to get smaller, lighter and sexier before we see people wearing them as part of their daily routine.

“With the framework already there in the form of prescription specs and designer sunglasses, it shouldn’t be too long until we see this. The tech just needs to get smaller.”

Once regular-sized and comfortable glasses arrive, say the experts, augmented reality will become the new normal, rather than the toonish novelty it’s seen as today. “It will transform how we interact with our homes, how we shop, how we learn, and how we work by integrating useful content into the context of your environment,” says Curran.

“It’s already being integrated into automobile displays on windshields, and as cars increasingly become driverless, it will open up options for what kinds of experiences you can interact with in your surroundings, without worry of distracting a driver.”

Real-life blocking in Black Mirror (Source: Channel 4)

Dystopian techno-drama Black Mirror presented viewers with a few scenarios in which augmented reality goes wrong: bleak futures in which you can block a person in real life, or in which the line between what’s real and what isn’t becomes irretrievably blurred. The science behind these episodes is accurate enough – some of it even achievable with today’s tech – but the experts anticipate that augmented reality would be put to rather more benign uses. At least at first.

“Imagine you’re at a football game,” says Bradbury, “and you want to enhance your experience before kick off. A simple AR app could scan the players’ positions on the pitch, pull up their stats and bring you closer to the game. During the game it could show you who is running out of steam and who is really performing.”

The commercial applications of AR are most apparent in the advertising world. Van Belleghem predicts glasses that could replace a billboard with a personalised, targeted advertisement. The opposite is also true – and a far more frightening prospect for brands – you can already block ads in your web browser, but soon you’ll be able to block advertising in the real world, too. While grocery shopping, you could highlight products that are dairy-free, having them literally glow on the aisle to draw your attention.

In 10 years’ time, we will wonder how we ever managed to get by in the world before augmented reality

But the most interesting brand partnerships won’t involve dumbly beaming traditional advertisements directly into consumers’ eyes. “Imagine the next time you were at McDonald’s,” says Bradbury, “and instead of using their new digital kiosk to order your burger, you could grab a seat and build your burger in front of you on your phone, before sending your order to the kitchen.

“There are so many opportunities for brands to build richer experiences for customers by blending their real and digital worlds, instead of advertising to them in blatant ways. For me this would be a waste of an exciting new channel, that has unlimited possibilities.”

Like the tractor-tyre sized Oreos and monstrous brassicas of Manlapaz’s Instagram feed, the possibilities of augmented reality must be seen before they’re believed. “New applications will be developed that for now we can only dream of,” says van Belleghem.

“Ten years ago, this was equally true for the mobile revolution. Who could have imagined the impact that smartphones and apps would have on our daily lives? And just as we now find it impossible to imagine how we ever lived without this technology, in 10 years’ time, we will wonder how we ever managed to get by in the world before augmented reality.”

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