The breakneck speed of evolution surrounding augmented reality heralds new innovations on a weekly basis. By a happy coincidence, the development of Augmented Reality, or AR (overlaying digital data across real-world environments), has coincided with contemporary trends like crowdfunding and seed investments. As a result, AR startups are launching all the time, hoping to become the next Niantic or Oculus.
Establishing a presence
Mainstream acceptance of AR is reflected in HBO using AR in Game of Thrones experiences at SXSW, and Dior’s adoption of Instagram filters so the public can virtually try on their 2019 sunglasses collection. However, many of the most exciting developments are happening at the newer end of this burgeoning market. Healthcare currently represents one of the most hotly-contested AR sectors, with visualization tools for surgeons being developed by New York-based Medivis and Salt Lake City-based Novarad.
AR’s potential has also progressively expanded into other industries. Fashion is a prime example, such as Belarus firm Wanna Kicks’ AR sneaker utility, where consumers can virtually ‘try on’ footwear. Travel firm TUI is using AR glasses to deliver destination experiences in their stores, from images and information to 3D models of resorts and hotel accommodation. Indeed, travel and hospitality represent a rich seam for AR advancements. Marriott is experimenting with an AR art gallery that allows guests to position virtual artworks around hotel rooms, before sharing the results on social media.
You wear it well
Wearables represent the Holy Grail for tech startups. The recently resuscitated Google Glass project and Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 headset are competing against a variety of AR startups. Beijing-based Nreal is attempting to develop mixed reality glasses which will weigh just three ounces. They’re also working on MR wraparounds resembling a pair of sunglasses, rivaling Human Capable Inc’s fittingly-titled Norm Glasses. Meanwhile, RealWear is developing industrial worker headwear which projects document navigation, video calls, and guided workflows onto protective visors.
These applications are mainly being assembled using software that’s also relatively new to the market. Few people will have heard of 8th Wall, an AR software maker founded by former Google and Facebook engineers. Dedicated toolkits for mobile apps and web-based AR experiences enable conventional web browsers to develop AR camera effects. This eliminates coding; charging customers on a cost-per-view basis also improves client-side affordability. Even better, it saves businesses and brands from having to develop their own APIs and displays, as Realmax recently did. Between the 2018 and 2019 CES shows, they took stereoscopic 1080p displays and a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip from a solitary prototype to production hardware.
All that glitters is not sold
Of course, AR startups are at uniquely high risk of failure. Half of American businesses fail inside the first five years anyway, and AR is a particularly volatile sector. It requires considerable up-front investment, despite offering no guarantee of long-term success. Unlike the dotcom boom, get-rich-quick schemes are almost non-existent. AR headset firms Meta and castAR both folded recently, while consumer brand Blippar collapsed after losing $44 million in 2017 alone. Consumer appetite for AR content on smartphones remains muted, despite Pokémon Go’s trailblazing success. Even big-hitters like Apple and Magic Leap are struggling to raise profits from a sector whose potential – ironically – remains theoretical.
Nonetheless, at a time when LEGO is launching AR-focused kits and Walmart has established its own tech incubator, AR startups may still find themselves in the right place at the right time. It remains to be seen which innovations and patents will have the greatest long-term influence over this rapidly changing sector.