The Reality of Augmented Reality for Brands

Brands like Microsoft have scaled back, but Apple's entrance may change the headset game

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We have all become more comfortable with a little augmented reality (AR) in our lives, although many of us may not realize it.

AR has always had a magical ability to amaze and delight, from those early days of chasing Pokemon across the city to the recent virtual shows by Gorillaz in New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus to launch their new single “Skinny Ape.”

Brands have also experimented with harnessing this magical quality in a variety of ways, from consumer-led entertainment to customer-led utility. The AR dragons and direwolves created by AnalogFolk for Game of Thrones bottles of Johnnie Walker elevated the consumption experience on social occasions, while Ikea Place was a groundbreaking way for customers to arrange virtual furniture in living spaces.

However, despite the advancements in AR technology, it has not yet reached the level of public adoption that many futurologists predicted.

AR goes mainstream

Social media has played a significant role in the mainstream adoption of AR, weaving the functionality into their user experience. Of course, consumers don’t necessarily call it AR or even know that it is AR. But that doesn’t matter. In fact, it merely demonstrates the pervasiveness of technology.

Snap reports that more than 70% of users engage with AR elements every day, sharing effects that contort and transform how they look on screen. But whether it’s Snap Lenses, TikTok Effects or Meta Spark, the potential use cases for brands continue to evolve from entertainment to shopping and from viewing 3D products to virtually trying on items within a brand’s channel.

Debates about hardware and public adoption

The conversation about the future of AR often gets wrapped up in debates about hardware. And it’s easy to see why. AR through smartphones or tablets is magical, but through dedicated eyewear, it is otherworldly. There is a paradigm shift on the horizon. But when it will arrive depends on a number of factors.

Ever since Google Glass, futurologists have imagined a world in which we could look up and around us, instead of always down at our handheld screens. They created hype films showing how AR could be used to assist with our everyday lives, creating quality-of-life enhancements. But as humans, we had just as many questions about data, privacy and social behavior as we did about the practicality of any technology.

A headset can be quite an antisocial device. You’re effectively closing out the real world to enter a virtual one. It can also get hot and sweaty, in gaming for example, if you’re playing for a while. And if you’ve spent all day staring at a screen, the last thing you might want is to climb into another computer at the end of the day.

There are many among us (particularly and perhaps surprisingly Gen Z) who are actively trying to escape the grip of their smartphones, let alone buy more internet-enabled tech. But AR-specific eyewear is likely a few years away yet.

As Google discovered, it is a significant technological challenge to develop advanced assistive eyewear that is light enough (and has enough battery power) to be worn comfortably throughout the day. As such, Google has already decided to stop selling the Glass Enterprise Edition, and wind down support for it.

Headset manufacturers pivot to industrial use

In recent years, most headset manufacturers have pivoted away from everyday consumer use to focus on specific industrial use. This makes sense: The technological performance and immersive experience of these headsets are genuinely jaw-dropping, and so is the price tag.

Even big businesses are thinking twice about reordering or upgrading headsets in these challenging economic times. Both Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 have been used across many industries from design and architecture to science and medical care, with the latter being adopted by the U.S. Army and even by NASA to help astronauts carry out maintenance work on spacewalks.

In most of these cases, the benefits of heads-up AR assistive displays have been quantitatively proven. And at SXSW, futurist Amy Webb posited that 10 years from now, we will look back on today and find it utterly incredible that we would let any surgeon operate on us without an assistive display!

Apple has entered the chat

But there is one factor that may just accelerate any paradigm shift.

Rumors have persisted for many years now about the launch of an Apple AR/VR headset and what that might mean for a nascent category struggling to gain traction with consumers. Those rumors may finally be turning into reality, with reports that an Apple AR/VR headset will be announced later this year.

Can Apple change the game? They have a unique ability to define a category, and so it would not be a surprise if consumer demand accelerated the marketplace. However, there are suggestions that any launch will happen despite reservations from the Apple design team that the device is not yet ready for release. And that a reported cost in the region of $3,000 will put it out of reach of even the most ardent Apple fanboys. It is probably better to think about it as a developer version (much like the Meta Quest Pro), with cheaper models likely to follow for a wider consumer base over the next few years.

Advice for brands

For brands, it is very much a case of wait-and-see when it comes to headsets or specific eyewear. However, this should not distract from the reality that AR is already being used in the channels their consumers engage with most regularly.

Brands should continue to explore how they can incorporate AR into their customer experience, from providing utility to entertainment. Test, learn and level up your AR knowledge, services and capabilities.

But first, you must discover just what value AR can add to your consumers’ lives. As technology advances and becomes more affordable, it is likely that AR will become more prevalent in our daily lives, creating new opportunities for brands to engage with their customers.