Put Your Phone Down: Augmented Reality Is Overblown

While Layar pushes forward with augmented reality apps and Nokia finds ways to embed AR cameras in our clothing, the rest of us wait breathlessly for a world in which our maps and data are overlaid on what we see, a world in which our smartphone serves as our all-knowing eye.

Or, frankly, we don't.

Augmented reality has been the stuff of R&D labs for years, but it's still a technology without mainstream enthusiasm. For people excited about AR, this should be disconcerting. Non-techies have embraced plenty of new tools virally—everything from cell-phone cameras to digital music to IMAP email. But few of the "normal" smartphone users I talk to can get excited about augmented reality. Sure, they're not thinking five years ahead, as we're told tech visionaries do. But augmented reality isn't five years away anymore. With 4G networks popping up everywhere and phone hardware improving at warp speed, AR is in its last trimester. And few people seem to care. (Layar for Android, below.)

Layar

Esquire seems to have proven the point. Its augmented reality issue features pages that come to life when you hold the magazine up to a webcam. I thought this was pretty cool, until I showed an industrial designer friend of mine. "You have to read the magazine like that?" he asked as I held my issue in front of my laptop. Yeah, I guess you do.

Talk to the people doing AR research, and they seem to think that the awkwardness of using AR—holding your phone up in front of you; holding your Esquire in front of your computer—will work itself out. But they may be underestimating the power of human habit. We have been ingesting information the old fashioned way for hundreds of years: by looking at a static image and using our brains, not our smartphone cameras, to meld it with reality. Maps, newspapers, books, computers—they're very different "technologies," but they all work essentially the same way: our brains provide the milieu. AR wants to derail that relationship. That's going to be a tough sell.

Even some the people who should be most excited about AR aren't. I've been working on a book about iPhone design and programming, and in the course of my research I've run into several iPhone developers who just don't see how AR stands to improve anyone's user experience.

Jonathan Wegener is the mind behind Exit Strategy NYC, an app that helps New Yorkers navigate the ins and outs of the subways system by showing all the exits, entrances and transfer junctures. You'd think map-app makers like him would be most excited about AR. But Wegener doesn't intend to ever involve augmented reality in his app's roadmap. "It's a total fad," he says of AR. "Looking at a tiny screen to show you overlaid information about the world around you is a really awkward and a broken user experience."

How many of us agree without even knowing it? Surely lots of people have the Yelp app for iPhone, which has a pseudo-AR mode. But how many of us actually use it that new mode to find a restaurant? Sure, we try it once, or pull it out to show friends, but that's about it; once the newness wears off, we're back to using Yelp the same old way.

"I think consumers will get tired of AR, and it will not really catch on," says Wegener. "But I think businesses will keep trying," he says. He compares AR to CueCat, the at-home USB bar-code reader that was supposed to change how we search for information on products. Neat, sure. But in the end, the old way of searching won out.

AR isn't bound to fail—that's not what I'm arguing. Iteration after iteration will be pushed on consumers until the technology finds its niche. Some have suggested that technicians will use it to see exploded technical diagrams, for instance. But if you're expecting apps like Layar to drastically change the way you live your everyday life, well, that's just not reality.

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6 Comments

  • Roger Nolan

    I think a big problem is that AR has become defined by the tech-demo-geekiness of camera overlay. It is indeed a great tech demo but it's not a very usable technology. It might become a usable technology when it works in a pair of spectacles or contact lenses but not before then.

    That's why the Yelp offering - overlay AR as a hidden feature inside another app is good. It's simply a viral vector for Yelp. Something that prompts you to demo the app to your friends in the bar.

    That is not to say AR is a bad idea. Exit strategy is augmented reality. The subway is reality, Exit strategy augments it by showing you some extra information. Immersive AR is worth waiting for but it's not the only useful kind of AR.

  • Camwise Gamgee

    Ahhh... this reminds me of the good old days, when the Information Super Highway was brand spanking new, and people built web sites that looked and acted just like long pieces of paper, or 'web pages'.

    In part, the issue revolves around taking a new technology and then trying to make it completely devolve its true value and ability by applying it to an old medium, like print.

    AR is not going to be about printing out pieces of paper and holding them up to your laptop camera or smartphone... it will (well currently IS for a lot of us) about engagement and immersive experiences.

    It will be a technology that within the right market segments, will be revolutionary. Training, Education and many others will be changed fundamentally as AR fights to find its right place, driven by the right minds.

    AR needs to live through its 'novelty' stage, just ask Bruce Sterling: http://www.vimeo.com/6189763

    AR to me, is a reality worth waiting for.

  • Antao Almada

    I agree that the current AR apps don't add much value. I posted about that at http://www.ydreams.com/blog/20....
    AR apps are still in its infancy and are on a "trial and error" mode, just like the web was in the beginning with all the ugly flashing web sites.
    What worries me is that the exagerated hype, that virtual reality had in the 90s, will make people think all future AR applications suck...

  • Blake Callens

    @Jenson, I have to disagree with you about the usefulness of Yelp's Monocle feature. I frequently find that it points me in the completely wrong direction. This isn't due to bad map data, as the top down map shows these places in the right location. These problems with mobile, location based AR are due to hardware limitations on mobile devices and not the software. When the GPS has you located any where between a 50ft and 100 meter radius, and the compass is accurate to somewhere between 10 and 45 degrees, locational information is bound to be displayed incorrectly.

    I think that these things will change with mobile AR in the future, but for now the problem, IMO is that the products are being sold as if they had absolutely no limitations. It reminds me of when I went to Six Flags when I was a kid and payed five bucks to have a "totally life changing" VR experience. They were right in that it was life changing in that I've never payed money for VR anything again.

    The answer to this problem is real world usefulness. AR's power will be in true user interaction with a mesh of real and digital landscapes. Most folks don't know about the real AR dev out there because the best ideas are being thrown around conference rooms and not in YouTube (at least not until they do what they promise). :)

  • Jensen Gelfond

    Not sure what other Yelp users do, but I use its "Monocle" augmented reality feature more than anything else when I'm searching for a nearby restaurant in a big city. And, it's not even fully-developed. Pointing my phone down the straight to look for restaurants is way more natural for me than sitting there, looking at a map and trying to figure out where I am in relation to the restaurants. I think the problem you're talking about is more about how some companies have no idea how to implement AR in a useful way (Esquire is a great example). But there are plenty of companies going in the right direction on this one. And sure, there are people who won't use a phone at all to find a restaurant, because they're not comfortable with newer tech. But we see smartphone users breaking all kinds of new ground, and it's only a matter of time before one of the AR apps matures enough to provide utility for the average person (the frequently-cited layar behaves at best as an early beta app).

  • Jack Benoff

    You're 100% right. It's not there yet, but it will be one day. I think one of the problems here is that people are writing off a technology based on current executions. In my opinion, that's short sighted. Would you write off the automobile if the first car you ever saw was the Gremlin or the Pinto?

    End consumers don't care about the technologies that run their devices, they care about the experiences they have when using it... the value it provides. There will be terrible executions/integrations, and fantastic ones (e.g. metaio’s in-store legos kiosk). The technology has powerful potential for various vertical markets we just need to give it time to develop. And in the case of mobile AR, we need to let the hardware that our smartphone’s are running catch up (and Apple needs to open up their API’s). Those two elements are what’s currently holding up the industry (in my opinion).

    I wrote more about the hardware issue here: http://weareorganizedchaos.com...