We’ve been having a lot of conversations about augmented reality lately so I wanted to provide a brief overview of the AR tech landscape for anyone who’s considering an AR app for their brand.

First a brief aside about terminology – I will use the term augmented reality (AR) here – the idea being that we are augmenting actual reality with some digital elements. Microsoft (and more recently Magic Leap) have adopted the term “mixed reality” (MR) in an effort to emphasize the nature of mixing digital content with elements of the real world. Some also use the broad term XR (with the X as a placeholder for AR, MR, VR, etc. or also sometimes called “extended reality”). It’s all unnecessarily confusing, so I will stick with the original term – AR.

AR Headsets

The science fiction vision for AR is for it to be persistent and seamless – basically for AR to be invisibly woven into human experience. We’re still quite far from that vision. That would probably require some kind of implant or at least a contact lens display. Mojo has been developing a contact lens solution, but they are not yet commercially available.

The next best option would be very light glasses. Many people’s first impression of AR was Google Glass – ahead of its time and sadly mismanaged from a PR standpoint. Glass is now one of many AR glasses options targeting the commercial market. Businesses and industries have proven to be more willing to invest in expensive hardware, specialized software development and training for AR solutions, as well as more forgiving of the current hardware’s limitations.

The more consumer-oriented dedicated hardware options for AR have focused on high-quality graphics and field of view. As such, they are fairly large and better termed as headsets than glasses. Microsoft’s Hololens headset is now in its second generation and probably the best AR hardware currently available. Hololens headsets are also well suited for industrial applications and have many such applications, but they can also be used quite effectively for marketing activations. Given our current situation, though, probably not until a time when people are comfortable again with gathering in person and sharing headsets.

Startup Magic Leap also offers a commercially available AR headset that could be used for events and activations. Fueled by piles of investor cash and lots of media buzz, they were able to create a fairly competitive product with a decidedly steampunk look. While not quite as good as the Hololens 2, it might be preferable for certain applications. Following widespread disappointment with their initial product release, the founder left the company. but the new CEO has said they will release a v2 product in Q4 this year.

Many other companies are also continuing to push the underlying technologies for smaller and lighter AR headsets. We’re probably still a few years away from a functional AR system that feels like regular pair of glasses, but we may have some breakthroughs towards that vision soon. Most notably, Apple is expected to release a consumer product sometime next year, although they have been characteristically secretive about the details. If the rumors are true, it will more resemble Hololens than Google Glass, but also incorporate eye tracking and Lidar sensors, which would enable some really exciting possibilities.

The Chinese electronics manufacturer Oppo also announced an AR glasses product worth keeping an eye on. Expected sometime this year, Oppo’s glasses must tether to a smartphone but look very much like regular sunglasses and will support hand gesture recognition. The display quality will likely lag behind the leaders in the field, but I can see them being useful for certain applications.

Mobile AR

As of now, even the best AR headsets currently available don’t have quite a wide enough field of view to make the resulting AR feel completely seamless and are too bulky for the tech to become invisible. And since the hardware is fairly expensive and the market still fragmented, there’s no substantial installed base to target.

But AR experiences can also work on mobile devices, and the installed base for smartphones is massive. That’s helped drive the use and acceptance of AR, as I talked about in a previous article. It’s now become almost mainstream to create AR experiences, and for most brands in the US they can be accessible to the vast majority of their customers and potential customers.

Since the smartphone market is a complete duopoly now on the operating system level, it’s quite achievable to develop native apps for both iOS and Android. That allows the app developer to most fully utilize the particular features of each OS and allows for the most efficient use of the device’s processing power. That’s actually true for any mobile app, and is especially so for native AR apps, which utilize specialized AR frameworks provided by Apple and Google.

Apple’s ARKit was first on the scene, back in 2017, and is in some ways the more advanced of the two platforms owing to Apple’s control over and uniformity of the underlying hardware for Apple phones. Since AR is fundamentally about placing digital objects into the physical world, the ability to accurately map and process the world around the smartphone is fairly crucial to the final experience. The iPhone 12’s Lidar sensors offer new capabilities in that area that can improve the experience for some users, but app developers in 2021 will still need to account for iOS users with older phones.

Google’s ARCore was released a little later, in 2018, but incorporates work that Google was doing for certain devices as early as 2014 in Project Tango. Due to the much wider variety of devices running Android, ARCore relies more heavily on the main camera and the phone’s motion sensors. That doesn’t allow for quite as robust an AR experience, but it does allow developers to create AR experiences that are accessible to wider audience. It’s even possible to run ARCore apps on iOS.

The levels of integration with different parts of the smartphone ecosystem vary on these platforms making some things work better on one platform than the other. For instance ARKit is better integrated with Apple Maps than ARCore is with Google Maps, but ARCore is better integrated with search (as you might expect.) For the most part, though, the native experiences created on each platform will be substantially similar. And if you’re building a native experience you’ll likely want to build versions for each OS anyway, so it’s less of an either/or situation than understanding where you can push the capabilities on each platform.

A key feature for native apps is the ability to do “simultaneous localization and mapping” or SLAM. This is a process similar to what self-driving cars use to understand their environment. In practice, it typically allows the user to place virtual elements into the room they are in and have those elements interact with that room in certain ways. That could allow a car to drive around your floor while avoiding obstacles or an animated character to hide behind your furniture, for instance.


There are methods developers can use to develop cross-platform apps or otherwise create efficiencies in the development process of parallel iOS and Android apps. But in most cases you should build apps as natively as possible and work to take advantage of the unique benefits of each platform. That requires a certain level of investment, and in many cases that investment is worthwhile. But some situations call for less investment or quicker turnaround. And sometimes brands don’t want the friction of requiring users to download an app in order to participate in an experience.

In such situations, building a WebAR experience might be just the right fit. While not as fully-featured as native AR apps, WebAR is just what it sounds like – an AR experience that users can consume in a web browser rather than downloading an app. Since so much of web browsing (and email reading and social media consumption) is done on smartphones in the first place, it’s relatively easy for brands to direct customers and prospects to a link that contains such an experience.

WebAR is actually not a unitary platform, but rather a broad set of frameworks and tools that can be used to build AR experiences for mobile browsers. As long as device has a web browser and a camera, it can likely support some form of WebAR experience. Such experiences are not completely seamless, as users will need to grant access to their camera in order to work, but they are very broadly supported and require less friction than downloading an app.

Ultimately the best technological solution for building an AR experience comes down to the specific goals and constraints for the brand and the desired experience. But with a broad variety of options already available, many of which are already fairly mature, there’s very likely a new AR experience worth considering for your brand.

Featured Image: Acura INDEX app, available for iOS and Android