Why So Many Augmented Reality Apps Fail in the Real World

Plenty Look Great in the Demo Video, but on Your Phone It's Another Story

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Matthew Szymczyk
Matthew Szymczyk
We get quite a few inquiries involving mobile augmented reality apps and pass on most of them. Why? For starters, we don't feel like we should waste potential clients' money. There's a huge gap between the practicality of current mobile AR apps and what's shown in marketing-driven or concept videos.

A great example of this is World Lens. If you haven't yet checked out this AR tech it's a concept that is game changing -- it will literally translate Spanish text into English text in your mobile viewfinder when you load the app and point your viewfinder at text. The video itself is so astounding, it has more than 3.2 million views on YouTube since December. But there's a problem when you view the promise of the video and actually try the current execution. The current user reviews on iTunes reinforce that.

That said, World Lens is the type of mobile AR app that promises utility and will likely be game changing once the kinks are worked out, it's the current crop of "iPhone Lite AR" apps that have fueled the level of hype for AR that will be hard to overcome.

Though iTunes created an augmented reality section for these types of apps, most of them aren't even true AR. Most of them involve using a stationary image you place via your viewfinder on an object or use the viewfinder itself as the backdrop for the app.

The Star Wars Falcon Gunner game is a great example of this. Is it true AR? Not really. Though this is a fun game, when you use the AR option, it's basically removing the Death Star in-game background and replacing it with your real world viewfinder background. There's no additional interaction from the game with the real-world background so it really is "Lite AR" in that the AR function itself doesn't provide any additional game-play value or interaction.

Most of the iPhone Mobile AR games also use this same approach and it's not helping to advance the mobile AR field one bit. In fact it's hurting the field and leading to underwhelming consumer expectations.

A recent research report from Forrester sums up what we've been saying for the last two years -- that mobile augmented reality is very overhyped and not ready for prime time. We've blogged numerous times about issues and limitations of mobile AR -- processing power, battery life, development fragmentation (iOS/Android) and so on. Though everybody in the AR industry will agree that mobile AR will one day become the focal point of all AR, it's not there yet and won't be for another few years. We'll likely start seeing some innovation in the mobile AR area in 2011 but it likely won't be until 2013 or so that mobile AR really starts reaching its potential.

However, there are some mobile AR executions that do show potential and where the mobile AR field is headed. Layar is the most prominent mobile AR developer and they're doing some interesting things with their platform mostly as it pertains to enhanced information. And I'm referring to executions like showing where the Berlin Wall used to be when visiting Germany vs. overlaying directional information in the mobile viewfinder which is still inaccurate and limited to current mobile handset technology. Two of my other favorite mobile AR apps include Sunseeker and iButterfly and show that utility based AR applications can be developed with current technology.

The press often assumes that all of AR is mobile AR. But it's not. As even Forrester points out, web and kiosk based AR executions are much further along in terms of consumer adoption and you'll likely see more of these executions in 2011 than others: "According to Mr. Husson, mobile augmented reality applications are not delivering. There are more significant short-term opportunities to tap into with Web-based and kiosk-based augmented reality solutions and there is great potential for the technology in ecommerce."

There's a reason why web and kiosk based-AR is more practical for your brand right now. With the web, you have the greatest reach for your AR application especially when you develop with Adobe Flash to obtain the greatest reach without the need for a proprietary plug-in. And with kiosks, you have greater processing power and removal of consumer barriers (i.e., markers, webcams) to achieve innovative and engaging executions for retail, OOH, POP and event marketing. But with mobile you still have the limitations I listed above that are not going to be overcome in 2011, much less 2012.

Though tablets might provide some innovation in the mobile AR arena, web and kiosk-based AR will likely be your best bet for any AR initiatives you're targeting to develop. Even Connected TV sets and gaming devices that offer webcam functionality will likely be a more developed and practical platform for AR than mobile. Microsoft Kinect with 8 million sales in it's first 60 days is already showing quick adoption of AR in the digital living room.

What's more, the PR value for AR is diminishing quickly for brands and doing an AR application or initiative just to do it does not make sense anymore. If I had a nickel for every inquiry we get where "I want to have the consumer point their phone at an old car and change it into X brand," well I'd be able to buy a 99-cent mobile AR app. AR can be a very useful technology for many different areas and industries and it's contingent on brands and their agencies to look to utility, practicality and value over quick PR and concept reels for their AR needs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew Szymczyk is CEO of Zugara, an interactive marketing agency based in Los Angeles. Zugara is a member of the AR Consortium and oversees the largest AR community on Facebook. He tweets at @kobrakai.
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