September 21, 2020

What We Think About When We Think About AR

by Braxton Collier, Tech Lead

AR adds animations to a static mural

Why Augmented Reality?

Here at Bluecadet, we have been developing augmented reality (AR) experiences for years. We’re fascinated by the potential for AR to tie digital experiences to physical places and objects: AR can place information in context, can add new dimensions to artwork and architecture, and be a tool for creation and sharing. It can also be a lot of fun. Recent increased interest in AR experiences from our clients has prompted some exciting explorations.

Start with Concept and Content

Personal phones and tablets are currently the most accessible way to experience AR. But holding a device in front of your face can put a real barrier between you and what you’re experiencing. Therefore, we always approach AR thoughtfully, keeping in mind it might not be the right tool for every type of experience or storytelling.

Using AR to draw in 3D.

3D digital drawing that you can walk around in space? AR can do that.

We’ve found that AR has to bring something more to an experience than a momentary sense of novelty. For example, when it can be tailored to a specific space, like a museum gallery or historical site, or is designed to work with compelling artwork in the real world. AR is also great when it gets people to move around and explore a space or facilitates playful creation and sharing, like 3D drawing. It’s crucial that the experience be paired with great content, either in the app or in the world (preferably both): There has to be something worth exploring through the lens of AR.

If you are thinking about building an AR experience, some important questions to consider:

  • Is the primary goal to reveal layers of information, to engage with physical space or artifacts, or to tell a story linked to a place (for example, a proximity triggered tour experience)?
  • Is this a one-time experience or something users will return to multiple times? How long will users engage with the application?
  • What’s the tone of the experience? Is it meant to be playful or serious?
  • Is the application meant to be used in a specific location, like a museum or historical site, or does it need to work anywhere? Will it be used indoors or outdoors?
  • Is it possible to provide users with specific devices to run the experience, like an iPad with a pre-installed app, or does it need to be accessible on people’s personal devices?
  • What kind of digital content will the application utilize? Does it require highly detailed 3D models or something more stylized and lo-fi? Is there scope to produce original assets if needed? How seamlessly do the digital assets need to integrate into physical space?
  • Is the AR experience stand-alone or is it part of a larger application?

Approaches to developing AR for mobile

The answers to these questions should inform not only the approach to design and content but also the platform used to create and deploy a particular AR application. If you’ve experienced AR on your phone before it’s probably been through a native app, something downloaded through the Apple App Store or Google Play. More recently, we’ve been exploring web-based AR as an alternative: instead of downloading an app a user goes to a website either by clicking a link or using a QR code, and the experience runs completely in the device’s browser. This also makes it easy to embed AR into a larger web experience.

When deciding between a native app or a web-based AR approach, there are a few trade-offs.

Native Apps: (for iOS and/or Android) The biggest advantages of a native app are better performance and more functionality. We’ve noticed this difference especially when it comes to markerless AR, situations where AR objects are placed in space without an image or object to anchor to, or support for complex 3D objects or animations. The inherent disadvantage is you have to convince users to actually download an app. Additionally, there are technical hurdles: native apps take longer to develop, and the experience may not be the same between iOS and Android.

In the Connect app for The Henry Ford, AR elements are triggered by objects from the museum's collection.

On a native app, AR elements can be triggered by all kinds of objects and add many new layers of content to an experience.

Here are some of the situations where a native app might be a good option:

  • The experience can run on dedicated devices that are distributed to users and returned afterwards.
  • The experience utilizes complex, realistic 3D assets and animations, or relies on high performance in some other way.
  • The experience will require cutting-edge camera vision hardware.
  • The experience is more serious or ‘meaty’, and the hope is users will return to it multiple times.

Web-Based Apps: The main advantage of the web approach is the ease of deployment, updating, and access. There’s no downloading an app and it’s automatically cross-platform. The main disadvantage is performance. Since the app runs in the browser, there are limitations on the fidelity of the tracking, the size of assets (especially 3D), and the smoothness/framerate. Web-based apps also can’t take advantage of the latest hardware developments, like LiDAR sensors.

8th Wall AR demos

Web-based AR may not be as powerful as a native app, but it can still look great for certain use cases.

Here are some of the scenarios where a web-based approach might make sense:

  • Getting users to download a native app is a concern, and ease of access and deployment is a high priority.
  • The experience is more lightweight and designed to only be used once or twice by any given user, or only in a specific location.
  • The application is intended to be run from a user’s personal device.
  • The experience relies on image tracking or placing AR content relative to the ground plane.

Where things are headed

AR technology is advancing at a rapid rate. The considerations above are based on the current state, however, we’re excited about what the future will bring. For example, the latest iPad Pro comes with a LiDAR depth sensor which gives a considerable boost to AR functionality and performance, especially when it comes to how AR objects interact with objects in the real world. We’re also interested in AR platforms that go beyond personal mobile devices, for example dedicated AR headsets (which are becoming cheaper and more widespread), and we’ve been exploring the possibility of stationary AR devices placed at specific locations.

AR elements in space

Stationary devices can drop AR elements into spaces where locating traditional AR markers would be difficult.

We are finally reaching the point where AR has advanced beyond a high-tech gimmick. It can add an amazing layer of information, interactivity, and excitement to an experience. However, to do AR right requires a thoughtful approach. Hopefully, the questions we have been asking here at Bluecadet provide a useful starting point for your own explorations into AR.

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