Tech Talk: Why Isn't AR For Smartphones More Prevalent?

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Anybody who's been paying any attention will have noticed that augmented reality (AR) is a big deal this year and going into the future, but may also have noticed that there seems to be a lack of those experiences for mobile. In fact, even at the recent Virtual reality (VR) is there too, of course, but AR has many applications far beyond what can be accomplished with the former. There also seems to be many more VR experiences available on mobile and that may be part of the reason why AR seems to be lacking. The fact that there are so many more VR experiences for mobile than AR is telling, however, and may speak to the limitations of AR itself.

Starting with the most obvious point, for something to qualify as AR it really needs to overlay or augment on top of the real world. That's slightly more difficult than the completely new experiences that can be created in VR. It's also true that most of the technology enabling the two facets of altered reality hinges on headsets or head-worn accessories. Because AR depends on the real world still being visible and on users being able to interact accordingly with that world, smartphones simply aren't a viable option in headset form like VR is. The lack of AR could also boil down, primarily, to the ways people interact in the world – which could also be why so much of the industry aims for head-born equipment. Interactions can be much more diverse and immersive if a user can still utilize their hands to go about their daily lives or to complete whatever task the AR is helping with. Simply put, although AR is mostly passive, as compared to VR, the technology AR requires goes quite a bit further in overall complexity than a face-covering display that generates a virtual world.

Moreover, holding up your smartphone and swinging it around to take full advantage of the overlays and user interfaces associated with AR is tiresome. In addition to arm and hand strain caused by holding a given smartphone at a useful height, doing so may also carry the perception of making a user just look weird or at least cause them to feel that way – particularly since it can draw so much attention. Further still, as seen with the first iterations of Google's Glasses, and the associated Explorer's program, it could raise privacy concerns for people to see a smartphone being brandished about as though its user is recording things. Both concerns arise from how AR is used as compared to VR. Typically, VR has no known applications outside of media consumption and enterprise – for training and similar activities. AR can be used in a huge variety of ways to provide useful information at any given time, without a user having to look something up on their smartphone. There are also instances in which AR could override users necessarily needing to launch any kind of app at all. So there are a lot of opportunities for concerns to crop up, even without anybody pulling out their smartphone and pointing its camera all over the place.

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Despite the obvious drawbacks to AR in a mobile format, there are some notable exceptions. Some of those, such as Pokemon Go, were and still are hugely successful endeavors. It may just be that more developers need to brainstorm new ideas to bring AR to mobile before those experiences become as prevalent in the market. After all, it isn't as though there are no mobile-based augmented experiences out there, and new ones are being introduced all of the time. It could also be that the advent and rapid proliferation of headset and glasses-based products will keep a damper on mobile-driven AR for the time being. In either case, it's a pretty safe bet that AR is not going anywhere anytime soon and that the focus will, most likely, be increasingly placed on the consumer market as interest in the experiences continues to grow.