By Natasha Manuel September 28, 2018

The Role of Augmented Reality in Mobile App Development

Augmented reality (AR) is today’s reality. It has come a long way from being just a concept. But until recently, it was too expensive for designers to even consider working with it. That’s all changed: It is now even available on mobile devices.

AR is the artificial environment that is created by combining digital with certain aspects of the user’s physical world. In a world created by AR, artificial elements are introduced to the user’s physical environment that enhance the user’s perception of reality. Through the years, AR has been widely embraced by application developers as well as users. A prime example is its usage in applications like Snapchat and Pokémon Go. The popularity of these apps marks the rapid growth and development of AR.

As per a recent report by Statista, mobile apps based in AR generated a revenue of $884.1 million in 2017, and the revenue is forecasted to reach $6,218.23 million by 2020. The same statistics also mirror the increase in users who generate content using AR-based apps: That number is predicted to grow five-fold, from 60 million users in 2013 to 200 million users by 2020.

AR in Mobile App Development

The role of augmented reality in today’s mobile technology, both hardware and software, is indisputable. Users can now experience the remarkable technology through their smartphone apps.

The best example of this is Pokémon Go, launched in July 2016 by Niantic for iOS and Android devices. This app makes use of the user’s mobile GPS to locate, capture, train, and battle virtual creatures called Pokémon, which appear as if they are in the player’s physical environment. The app was one of the most successful mobile apps in 2016, having been downloaded more than 500 million times worldwide. This app is credited with popularizing AR technology in mobile apps.

When it comes to AR mobile development, it is clear that iOS and Android will lead the race; they are equipped to give the best support. Both these platforms feature hardware and software such as microelectromechanical systems sensors, cameras, GPS, and solid-state compasses, which make them ideal for AR-based mobile app development.

They also host almost the entire user base: Most targeted AR app users are on either the Android or iOS platform.

Getting Into AR: The Two Approaches

Let’s have a brief look into how AR works to understand it better. Basically, AR uses two approaches: maker-based and location-based.

In the maker-based approach, the software identifies a pattern, sign, or symbol when the camera scans it and digital content, like an image or a video, is projected on the surface of the symbol or sign. A marker thus offers the AR content a jumping-off point. A marker could be made of one frame from the beginning of a video. However, when it is seen through a smartphone, the video starts playing perfectly and the marker image offers some context for the user of what they can hope to experience when they see the AR content. Thus, a marker, when used effectively, provides a bridge between AR content and a user’s environment. The best example for this is QR codes, which act like the barcodes we scan in supermarkets.

Meanwhile, the location-based approach is used mainly for navigation purposes. In this approach, a user’s location is determined, and after recording the present location of the user’s device data using maps, details on the surrounding places are given.

Should Businesses Develop AR Apps?

Today, many businesses, regardless of their nature or sector, are thinking of implementing AR apps to increase their user engagement. By creating a virtual experience, companies can enhance the way they project their products and services to customers.

This is something businesses should consider to get ahead of their competitors. AR is going to define the next level of customer engagement and experience, and it could mean a competitive edge over others, particularly when it comes to retail and e-commerce.

AR-based mobile apps for any business could translate to the following benefits:

  • Branding: Creating AR-based apps can increase the popularity of a particular brand. With AR, the brand is propelled, and most importantly, creates an impact that easily stays in the mind of the target audience for a longer time than static apps or advertisements.
  • User experience: Especially in the retail sector, AR can complement the shopping experience by adding color, sound, and visual content. Thus, with AR, a run-of-the-mill catalogue can evolve to deliver an omnichannel experience. Using AR-based mobile apps, the customers can be in the same familiar environment and, at the same time, experience something engaging and convincing. As customers are offered the benefits of in-store shopping without having to visit the store, they can have a more satisfying buyer experience, which in turn could translate to more sales.

AR Application in Businesses

There is a broad range of sectors benefiting from AR, from Gaming to Education, to Travel; Retail to Entertainment. The following are some of the ways in which AR apps can benefit users:

  • In-store experience: AR-based mobile apps can simulate products in actual size in virtual trial rooms, thus giving customers a virtual in-store experience. In the retail sector today, there are mobile apps where the user can use virtual fitting rooms to try on clothes, saving them time and effort. These apps can also help the store to display more stock than they can physically manage. Some examples of AR retail apps are Sephora, L’Oréal, and the Converse shoe sampler.
  • Online shopping: Demo videos that provide more details and videos of unboxing items give an in-store experience to shoppers. With AR, shoppers are offered visualization and configuration of the product in the real world, which will help to eliminate the chances of doubt and abandoned shopping carts.
  • AR maps: When AR is integrated into maps, it helps to project more details on nearby places when it is used with technologies like geolocation.
  • Travel: AR-based apps can make possible digital walkthroughs of places and ambiance while delivering historical information and panoramic views of sites.
  • Education: The education sector has also benefited from the arrival of AR. With AR education apps, studying can become more interesting and education more effective. AR enables learning to be more interactive, which ensures that the information imparted has a longer retention rate. Some of the prominent AR-based apps in education are Chromville Science and ZooBurst.
  • Entertainment: Entertainment apps like Snapchat and Musical.ly congest the market of AR apps available today. As individuals spend more time on their mobile devices than anywhere else, mobile app developers are flocking to create apps that can guarantee increased user engagement.

Choosing the Right AR Software Development Kit: What to Consider

There are lots of AR software development kits (SDKs) on the market today such as EasyAR, Maxst, Vuforia, ARToolKit, and Wikitude, so choosing one is not very easy. Make your choice based on the functionality of your mobile app: It should support all the features of your mobile app. The following are some of the criteria that should be considered:

Type of Licence

First and foremost, a developer should look at the expense that will be incurred by each AR SDK. Every app requires its own kind of license key. A given app can be deployed with just one license across various platforms and mobile devices. At first, a developer should explore the kinds of licenses each AR SDK offers and choose one depending on their app requirement.

As we all know, there are free and commercial licenses. Free licensing has its limits, and commercial licensing is more suitable for building function-rich mobile apps. Developers also have the choice of open-source AR software, to which they can add more functions.

Platform Compatibility

While choosing an SDK, a developer must ensure that it supports the platform they are working with. Most of the SDKs available support both Android and iOS. Check out what you should consider while choosing a platform here.

However, if you want to develop an app for Windows Mobile, you should choose SDKs that support Universal Windows Platform, which will enable them to create AR-based apps for Windows-operated devices. Today, there are also AR apps that will help a developer to build AR apps for macOS.

Cross-platform development is also a good option to consider because it helps to build software that runs on multiple platforms with one set of tools and programming languages.

Supporting Smart Glasses

Most AR operates through smartphones today, enabling the user to see virtual objects on the surface screen of their mobile devices. Smart glasses are wearable devices that are capable of offering useful information to the user. Smartwatches also harvest similar information—anything from the user’s heart rate to incoming text messages and turn-by-turn directions.

One of the primary advantages of smart glasses is that they do not require the user to take their eyes from what they are doing in order to see the information—they are essentially “a heads-up-display.”

Through smart glasses, it is possible to overlay virtual objects onto the real world. Smart glasses provide a hands-free experience as compared to smartphones. Thus, building mobile apps that support these gadgets is certainly an advantage. Some examples of smart glasses are Microsoft HoloLens, Vuzix Blade 3000, and Epson Moverio BT-300.

Unity Compatibility

One of the most popular and advanced game engines in the world, Unity is used to develop games for computers and consoles. What most individuals don’t know about Unity is that it is capable of creating effective AR apps.

With Unity, a developer can create remarkable graphics in their AR-based mobile apps. The only disadvantage of using Unity is its resource intensiveness (a lot of resources are required for production and processing in the platform): Because of this, many prefer building native Android and iOS apps.

Cloud Recognition

An AR SDK should support cloud recognition if it wants to identify various markers. This feature enables the storage of markers in the cloud and the app, so it will not consume much space on the mobile device.

Cloud recognition will also enable the AR app to recognize the number of markers. While some AR development kits support 100 markets, there are also some that can recognize thousands of them. The more markers an AR development software can recognize, the more the developer will be able to create an enhanced AR experience.

On-device Recognition

You should ideally use an SDK with on-device recognition if your aim is creating a manageable and easy AR mobile app. In this instance, the markers are stored on a user’s mobile device, which means that they can use the app offline as well.

3D Tracking

The best AR platforms are compatible with 3D image tracking, meaning they are able to identify 3D objects like cups, boxes, toys, and cylinders. This has the effect of broadening the opportunities for AR in the mobile apps. For instance, 3D object tracking can be employed in e-commerce AR apps and for developing mobile games.

Geolocation

Geolocation is a must while developing location-based AR apps. It is also useful in mobile AR games. One popular example is Waze.

Simultaneous Localization and Mapping

Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) technology enables apps to map an environment and keep track of their own motion in that environment. For instance, with this technology, a mobile app powered by AR can remember the position of various objects in the rooms and thus keep a virtual object in a certain place while the user moves around the room.

Other than adding virtual objects, SLAM can also enable a developer to develop maps for navigating indoors, which even GPS is unable to do.

AR Development Tools

Now that we have discussed what features to consider, let’s look at the popular AR development tools available today. They include:

  • Vuforia
  • ARToolKit
  • Google ARCore
  • Apple ARKit
  • Maxst
  • Kudan
  • EasyAR
  • Wikitude

Let’s take a brief look at Vuforia and Wikitude.

Vuforia

Vuforia offers some impressive functions:

  • It is able to recognize texts with a standard vocabulary that contains over 100,000 words
  • This SDK has the capability of identifying 2D and 3D objects
  • This SDK has video playback and cloud recognition
  • In this SDK, the user can use screens like a touchscreen
  • This SDK has its own barcodes called VuMarks, which encode data and act as a marker

Wikitude

  • This SDK hosts a range of top-notch AR features that enables the user to develop both marker-based and location-based AR apps for mobile. Some of its features are:
  • It has geolocation support, which helps the user to add location-based services to their AR mobile app
  • This SDK provides instant tracking, which enables the user to map their environment
  • This SDK enables display of objects without the need for markers
  • This SDK has cloud recognition and on-device support

How To Develop AR-Based Mobile Apps

Android and iOS are the most popular platforms for building AR-based mobile apps. Let’s take a quick look into a simple way to build AR apps in these platforms.

AR Android Apps

In Android, one of the easiest ways to build AR apps is by using Android SDK. Android SDK provides the required API for interacting with the camera. It also provides OpenGL support for 3D graphics, making it easy for developers to build AR-based apps.

AR iOS Apps

Similarly, in iOS, an easy way to develop AR apps is Craft SDK. Its application programming interface will enable you to push new AR content and help to edit existing AR content easily. It also helps to upload videos and 3D models to the cloud’s media library.

With Craft’s AR creator, developers can develop the content and easily push it to the AR environment. The cloud image recognition available in Craft enables the determination of thousands of objects instantly. Its analytics help in gauging the performance of the AR contents.

Other than iOS and Android SDKs, there are also several other toolkits available on the market today for creating AR apps for smartphones and wearable devices.

AR Possibilities Are Endless

Needless to say, augmented reality technology is trending in mobile app development and outside it as well. The possibilities make this an exciting time for developers.

The opportunities are endless, and each new development unleashes a new wave of excitement. Savvy developers should not delay in indulging in their own experimentation in this field.

About the author

    Natasha Manuel

    Natasha is a Content Manager at SpringPeople. She has been in the edu-tech industry for 7+ years. With an aim to provide the best bona fide information on tech trends, she is associated with SpringPeople. SpringPeople is a global premier training provider for high-end and emerging technologies, methodologies and products. Partnered with parent organizations behind these technologies, SpringPeople delivers authentic and most comprehensive training on related topics.