Over the course of this year, we’ve seen more and more evidence that AR is going (or already is) mainstream thanks, in part, to pandemic shut-downs. And there have been a huge variety of applications for this technology, from creating virtual stages for performances to allowing us to shop at home and see how items like furniture or clothing will fit into our lives. Then, of course, there are the in-person possibilities from theme parks to tourism apps.

We know the AR industry is growing quickly, but it isn’t meeting its full potential yet, tech-wise. Still, from phone apps to glasses, AR is a great way for marketers to tell their stories and engage with their customers wherever they happen to be. Whatever our “new normal” may look like in a post-pandemic society, AR will be a good example of a hybrid technology that can be delivered both online and in-person.

New hardware, new possibilities

A few years ago, most people hardly realized the possibilities of AR beyond Snapchat and Pokémon Go. And preliminary attempts to make wearables, like Google Glass, were largely a flop. Google is finding plenty of ways to improve apps and websites by creating open-source AR tools, such as ARCore and Scene Viewer. But even their attempts to move beyond Google Glass in the wearables department (which is still used in business) seem to have slowed down for now. Microsoft, too, seems to have moved their HoloLens devices into the military and commercial sectors (though they would be considered mixed-reality, not strictly AR).

Of course, none of this has stopped other big tech companies from trying to improve our augmented futures by creating new hardware. There’s big money pouring into building dedicated AR headsets from Snap, Apple, and Facebook.

Snap, Inc’s Spectacles are unique in that they’re not for mass production but rather made for developers looking for ways to drive AR technology forward. But what they’re seeing through these lenses is akin to what other companies are trying to provide for the masses. The company purchased WaveOptics for $500 million to supply components for the headsets and they do plan to create a marketplace where brands can connect to creators and even recently announced new gesture and voice control capabilities that will make virtual catalogs even more intuitive for consumers.

The buzz surrounding Apple’s possible entry into the AR headset/glasses world is at an all-time high. And it’s likely that an Apple product would signal the go flag for other competition. New AR features in Maps and depth-sensing LiDAR on the iPhone 12s appeared to further hint at their future plans. Still, the frenzy is fueled by rumors (and supposed leaks from the lab). But if they’re true, it looks like 2022 may bring news of both AR headsets and glasses from Apple.

The truth is, no one has turned AR glasses or headsets into viable consumer reality. But Facebook is working on it, even after the slow growth of Oculus. Facebook Reality Labs has paired up with Luxottica and Ray Ban to bring glasses to the masses, but the frames released as part of . Project Aria fall short of AR. They are also limited to the Facebook universe, which brings up another issue facing the future of wearables – each company will have its own platform, and it’s doubtful that consumers will want more than one pair of pricey glasses. In Facebook’s case, wearers can really only use them to record and share images and short videos, listen to music, and take calls. Zuckerberg hopes one day they will replace smartphones, but we’ll have to see how that goes since the surveillance aspect is even more problematic, especially if they do eventually come with the planned facial recognition technology.

Despite their AR inadequacies, the most important thing about Facebook’s glasses are that the company sees them as a key to its larger venture to turn itself into the center of the metaverse.

Metaversal reality

In the metaverse, physical and digital realities collide in a semi or fully virtual form of “reality.” And there’s something to the underlying tension between these big companies that whoever comes out with the first viable piece of technology to help people experience AR will have a leg up in creating the first metaverse, thereby encouraging people to get on board with their platform.

There’s some question as to whether the tech barons’ dreams of metaversal reality are actually a thing people want, but preliminary experiments have been successful. As I’ve discussed in the recent past, brands from Epic Games (the makers of Fortnite) to Louis Vuitton have lured willing customers to engage with them on these digital platforms.

Those who dismiss the metaverse and adjunctive technologies like AR may well miss out. After all, if a brand’s goal is to tell a story, there are truly limitless possibilities in a virtual world where one isn’t constrained by reality. If the pandemic continues to constrain our free and safe movement, then virtual spaces are ideal – there are no real estate bills, no temperamental sales associates or models (use virtual ones instead!), no understaffing, and no limit to the experiences you can give to visitors as they interact with chatbots or try on clothing virtually.

Augmented reality is still not reality

A May 2021 Deloitte report estimates that there are 1.5 billion global AR users, and 100 million of them are already using AR to shop. But the truth is that the hardware isn’t ready.

WebAR has done great things for brands and consumers as it has leapt forward impressively over the last year and a half, but without AR hardware, companies probably won’t go all-in on platforms and developers may wait to see who emerges the winner. Then there’s the customers who have to buy into all of this.

And as we’ve seen, AR hardware is a lot harder to build than anyone realized. It will also bring about experiences that are significantly different from webAR interactions. The early platforms will likely be tightly controlled so customer experiences are optimized, freezing out what could have been a diverse set of developers. It’s not as simple as “if you build it, they will come.” It’s more like a chicken and egg question – which comes first, the use cases or the hardware? And then there’s the question of what incentives there will be for developers to even want to move to rigidly-controlled platforms from Apple or Facebook.

But there’s still plenty of optimism since consumers are becoming more AR proficient by the day and for whatever the estimates are worth, it’s thought that AR will expand into a nearly $400 billion industry by 2028.

The tech optimists expect smart glasses to be a success and welcome the integration of LiDAR sensors and ultra-wideband (UWB) radio waves to create a more spatially-enriching experience. And since this technology is already in some of our devices, it’s already creating exciting AR experiences.

Reality is mobile

E-commerce software company Shopify Inc. said last September that product pages with AR experiences led to a 94% higher conversion rate compared to traditional listings. There are hundreds of other statistics like this. And we can safely bet that the continuation of the pandemic combined with people’s newfound willingness to shop from home (or use their phones in brick and mortar stores to explore goods) are going to ensure webAR and mobileAR remain useful.

I’ve previously explored the ways in which brands like Sephora and IKEA have deployed the ability to try on or try out their items using only your phone from the comfort of your couch. Brand offerings such as Kohl’s AR Virtual Closet or the creation of digital skins for the metaverse have also bumped up consumer spending. Given that success, it’s no surprise that more and more brands are implementing the technology, even in areas like the automotive industry.

The ability to visualize products that aren’t there has set new standards for the retail industry and those who don’t invest in AR will likely be left behind as brand interactions move further into the digital realm.

The best of both worlds

As we move through the Greek alphabet of COVID variants, there’s no easy way to predict whether we’ll see our new normal this year or next. Consumers have made their way back to stores, but even then they’re still expecting some of the convenience they got from shopping at home. And this is just as true of the grocery store as it is of the cosmetics store.

Yes, people want  in-person sensory experiences, but they also want their trips to brick-and-mortar stores to have alluring-yet-low-touch engagements that teach them about products. Investing in AR content now is anything but a waste. In fact, one can make the argument that whether a customer is in a physical or virtual store, they will want the best of both worlds. Brands that miss the boat could very well end up stranded on the shore waiting for someone to build a platform that will dictate their engagement.

Featured Image: Louis Vuitton Virtual Goods via XR GOES POP