The State of Augmented Reality on Smartphones

From the moment we wake up to the point where we fall asleep, we are continuously subjected to information from around the world. Whether it’s reading the news, watching sport highlights, or scrolling down the Facebook wall – yesterday always feels like a distant past. The Information Age has blessed us with the convenience of sharing our knowledge and activities to anyone connected to the World Wide Web. Yet even with all the technological achievements that have transpired in the last few years, most of us limit our understanding of the physical world to what we read on digital screens. But augmented reality is primed to change our lives by combining the digital and physical worlds.

The best way I would describe augmented reality (or AR for short) is “making the invisible, visible”. Augmented reality is superimposing graphics and information through a camera feed to the user, but in its truest form, accounts for the user’s position and orientation to populate their surroundings. The concept of augmented reality has been applied for many years, albeit limited to military and scientific settings. Today, every modern smartphone consists of a high resolution display, camera, GPS, accelerometer, and a compass; all of which are key ingredients in making AR feasible to millions of people worldwide. With its application in many fields, like art and physics, augmented reality is poised to revolutionize our lifestyle.

So why is it that when searching the app store, very few apps appear to utilize augmented reality? Well, as it turns out, it’s really hard to do it convincingly. Superimposing 3d models over the camera feed is met with visual oddities caused by margin of errors perpetuated at the hardware level. Shake the phone too fast and the camera can’t keep up. Moving in an area with a poor GPS signal can cause jitteriness as the user “bounces” between locations. Not having a direct ability to account for lighting which would cause the model to be improperly lit is just one more deterrent that make AR unappealing from a business standpoint.

Not all smartphone applications are marred by these technical problems however. Star gazing applications like Sky Guide are not adversely impacted by the aforementioned hardware limitations as these extraterrestrial bodes are so distant from Earth, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference even if the phone’s location accuracy is off by 1000 meters. Ingress is a popular game developed by Google that employs elements of geocaching and competitive multiplayer to garner international attention. Arguably, it was AR Invaders that really made the first impact on smartphones with its early market entry and leveraging all aspects of the hardware to create an entertaining game where players fend off alien invasions.

Augmented reality certainly has a future for the general public, but it’s pretty bleak on smartphones. Innovations in the headset market such as Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens are inherently designed to make AR more practical while simultaneously eliminating the need for your hands to be preoccupied. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem that any smartphone manufacturers have any interest in improving the gyroscopes built into their phones, which is a key component in making augmented reality more immersive. It’s not to say that there is no merit to developing augmented reality applications for smartphones, or that development of mobile AR based applications will come to a complete halt at any point. What I do believe is that smartphones will only serve more as catalyst than being heralded as the future in the augmented world.

Robert Kapiszka is a lifer at Push Interactions, having started working for the company shortly after its inception. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays Robert from the swift completion of his appointed software tasks. He also likes to play soccer and socialize with friends.

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