Key Augmented Reality Trends For 2021 (part 1)

augmented reality trends

Looking at today’s augmented reality (AR) trends shows just how far this technology has come. Since the first commercial use of AR technology in a 2008 BMW advertisement, AR quickly reached mainstream consumer consciousness and widespread usage, recently overtaking virtual reality in the process. Today, almost 75% of consumers aged between 16 and 44 are aware of AR in the US and the UK alone. More importantly, however, over half of all consumers are interested in using AR within the next three months. While AR’s ability to make digital shopping experiences more tangible has been invaluable to shoppers and brands alike in recent months, the rate at which consumers adopt this technology is unlikely to decrease when the COVID-19 pandemic ends. 

Whether deployed as part of a contextual shopping experience, used to provide educational experiences to kids, or make video games more immersive, nearly two billion people will use mobile AR experiences regularly by the end of 2021. For businesses and consumers, AR will become ubiquitous. As it bridges the gap between the digital and the physical, AR will also fundamentally change how we relate to aspects of our everyday experiences. 

Like any emerging technology, AR innovation’s growth is breathtaking, and it can be hard to keep track of how trends are changing. Here are three AR trends that we think will define AR experiences in 2021 and beyond that you should pay attention to right now.

Shared Experiences Are Already a Growing Augmented Reality Trend

augmented reality trends
Persistent cloud AR experiences anchor content for far more extended periods than was possible before.

The potential for AR to be a truly shared experience has been restrained by the temporary nature of most AR experiences. Some of the basic mechanics enabling these interactions have been made easier in recent years, such as through Google’s ARCore Cloud Anchors feature, allowing developers to fix persistent cloud AR experience anchors that persist as long as is specified.

This development allows creators to leave AR information and media on fixed points in space, which can then be discovered and shared by hundreds of users over a defined period. The possibilities this creates are endless. From AR graffiti tags and advertisements to in-store product information that persists as long a shop stocks an item, this technology will redefine AR as a shared experience. 

The next stage of this trend is already in development. While a full-scale, real-time map of the entire world in 3D sounds like a developer’s fantasy, it is something that Niantic, the creators of the groundbreaking AR-based game Pokémon Go, are working on right now. By leveraging user-collected spatial data, a methodology acquired through their recent purchase of 6D.ai, Niantic is creating a world scale, cloud-based AR map.

The clever part is capturing this information on an on-going basis, and Niantic, true to form, are encouraging and incentivising their community to do this work on their behalf. This echoes the origins of PokeStops, which themselves were submitted by users of the previous game Ingress as points of interest. Google, not ones to be left behind in indexing the world, are themselves asking users to submit scans of their local areas for incorporation into Street View, but the incentives are perhaps a bit less obvious.

This kind of technology opens a new world of AR experiences. With real-life geography mapped into an AR cloud, digitally-generated AR features will seamlessly interact with the real world and allow a new level of shared immersion. The City Painter feature unveiled by Snapchat in Carnaby street, London, gives a glimpse of what this future might look like. With an entire road digitally mapped based on crowdsourced photographs, each Snapchat user can now paint the street’s buildings in AR for other users to see. With major players such as Snap and Google building this technology, and other M&A activity including the aforementioned acquisition of 6D.ai and Facebook’s purchase of Scape Technologies, it’s clear we’re on the cusp of seeing AR examples move from the ephemeral to the everlasting.

The Acceleration of Web-Based Augmented Reality

augmented reality trends
Many AR experiences now allow users to visualise objects in their environment.

You might have already enjoyed projecting dinosaurs into your living room or examining exotic animals up close with Google, but the company is only getting started when it comes to AR. In a recent blog post, Google explained their intent to turn AR search from a novelty toy and educational aid into a consumer product, by allowing AR to be used by prospective car buyers in the US. Searchers interested in buying a new car will soon be able to project real scale, customizable models from manufacturers such as Volvo and Porsche into their driveways.

However, Google’s expansion of its AR search feature also highlights a broader trend in augmented reality — a move from app-based AR experiences to browser-based ones. Across both Apple and Windows devices, recently updated AR development kits mean that users will increasingly experience AR features without having to open up a specific app. 

With this kind of web-based AR, a hyperlink or QR code could lead a prospective shopper straight to the type of AR shopping experiences that IKEA and Starbucks deliver through their mobile apps at the moment. As it becomes easier to integrate into existing sites, web-based AR will start to turn augmented reality into a natural extension of the online shopping experience for both consumers and brands globally.

Much as the embed code enabled the proliferation of video players such as YouTube and Vimeo through artiles and other websites, the ability to naturally incorporate AR into other content is key to increasing uptake. Both 8th Wall and Sketchfab, two leaders in the space, launched inline AR viewers which will open up possibilities to third parties to incorporate immersive experiences into their content. Alongside this, the open source <model-viewer> project has evolved at a rapid pace, unifying 3D model visualisation in AR across Android and iOS devices.

New Consumer Augmented Reality Glasses Will Make (Underwhelming) Debuts

augmented reality trends
AR glasses and wearables will be widely available soon.

Costing over £1,000, clunkier than it needed to be, and widely met with ridicule, the launch of Google Glass in 2013 might be a classic example of the right product at the wrong time. But while the idea of consumer-level AR glasses left the public eye for a while afterward, it didn’t disappear. Major tech companies, including Apple, Facebook, and Google (again), have been pouring billions of dollars into research and development for next-generation augmented reality wearables, and the results will be available soon. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announceded that his company will launch its first wearable smart glasses in 2021 in collaboration with Ray Ban. Meanwhile, Apple has a VR/AR headset, codenamed T228, currently in the works. Google too recently relaunched its Glass product as an enterprise device to aid manufacturing businesses and is rumoured to be working on an updated consumer-level product. 

It is also noteworthy when as large a juggernaut in the mobile processor space as Qualcomm states that AR glasses represent “the next major step in mobile”, as they did at the launch event for the new Snapdragon 888 chip.

As new iterations leverage 5G networks, developments in AR cloud technology, and increased consumer readiness, wearable AR glasses have a strong chance for mainstream adoption. By changing the paradigm around how people experience AR, wearable glasses could potentially supercharge AR as a means of experiencing the world – however it is unlikely that this will happen in 2021.

It’s likely that the devices we see released next year do not offer true world tracking and augmentation, but rather primarily function as heads up displays (HUDs) showing wearers notifications and contextual information – think more of an Apple Watch within your field of view than entering the mirrorworld.

Final Thoughts 

AR is an incredibly fast-moving space. As consumers, brands, and enterprises realise how integrating the physical and digital can provide massive benefits, new trends and use cases will emerge that cannot be predicted. However, current AR trends, such as the development of persistent experiences, web-based AR, and next-generation wearable technology, points to a future in which AR experiences leap from novel to normal – but as always, the billion dollar questions is: when?

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