Mobile AR browsers and what stops them from taking over the world

View through a mobile AR browserHalf a billion smartphones shipped worldwide in 2011 and a growth of more than 50% year on year (Canalys) means not only a rapid adoption of the new technology but also a great opportunity for augmented reality apps to tap into the most important characteristic of modern people – mobility.

Carrying a mobile phone wherever you go is no longer a commodity but a necessity for communication purposes and especially for access to information and entertainment. And what if you could get all of these based on your location, your interests and your sensorial perceptions (a.k.a. your reality)? Then you get a mobile augmented browser.

What is a Mobile AR Browser?

Launched in 2009, the mobile augmented reality browser combines augmented reality technology with a mobile Internet browser and smartphone technologies (camera, GPS, compass) to display digital layers on top of what you are seeing.

The building blocks of all mobile AR browsers, these digital layers called “layars”, “channels” or “worlds” (depending on the browser used) can contain any type of information, from text and images to videos and interactive 3D animation.

Whether you want to find the best offer from the nearest restaurant, play the trailer of the movie you just saw on a billboard or check what you nearby Twitter friends are up to, the mobile AR browser can help you.

But which one should you choose? There are more than a few AR browsers out there, and the first impression is that all are the same; at a deeper glance though, they are actually quite different, with different strategies and different audiences. Let’s take a look at the first three.

Top 3 Mobile AR Browsers

Layar – the ‘cool’ browser (3.5 stars rating on Android Market and 2.5 stars on App Store) – one of the first mobile augmented reality browsers, Layar was launched in 2009 by SPRXmobile, a Dutch mobile company. Supporting only Android phones initially (contrary to the mass trend of apps being firstly launched on iPhone and then on all other devices), the AR browser soon became a popular app, being now available on all major mobile operating systems except Windows (currently being developed).

Beatles Crossing Abbey Road in LayarWith over 10 million downloads worldwide and over 1 million active users, Layar has continuously grown and added not only thousands of layers but also new technologies and features such as Layar Vision. By using computer vision techniques, the app scans real objects and if they match the fingerprint included in the opened layer, Layar Vision can quickly return the associated AR experience.

Junaio – the ‘techie’ browser (3 stars on Android and 2.5 stars on App Store) – self-proclaimed “the most advanced augmented reality browser” and with more than 1.7 million downloads, Junaio, developed by the German AR company Metaio, is currently available only on iPhone and Android devices.

Junaio Mobile AR Browser

Junaio Mobile AR Browser

Very similar to Layar (from a features perspective), this AR browser seems to be going for the “Jack of all trades” strategy where all new AR developments are quickly integrated in the browser, aiming for the creation of an AR hub. This is how Junaio’s latest version got to include a traditional AR browser, object recognition technology (similar to Layar Vision), internal web browser and QR and bar code scanner.

Wikitude – the ‘social’ browser (4 stars on Android and 2.5 stars on App Store) – claimed to be the first mobile AR browser worldwide and winner of numerous industry awards in its 3 years of existence, Wikitude GmBH is the only AR browser available on the five major mobile operating systems (OS, Android, Symbian, Windows and Blackberry).

Wikitude with My World Beta

Wikitude with My World Beta

Without incorporating the latest AR developments, Wikitude is a strong competitor to Layar and Junaio through its functional and social focus. One of its key features is Wikitude My World (beta), which allows users to create their own world (layer) with locations, descriptions and pictures that can easily be shared with their friends through Facebook.

Potential Threats and Weaknesses

Despite their novelty and their high potential, the mobile AR browsers have managed to capture only around 1% of the smartphone market (in terms of active users). There is no doubt that they have strongly benefited from the AR hype (with millions of downloads in only a couple of years); however, when it comes to actively using these apps on a regular basis, the figures plummet.

Layar, which had more than 10 million downloads since their inception, has only around 1.5 million active users (according to their own figures). Some would say that this figure is not bad (15% active users) but when compared to the 50+% active users of a third party Internet browser of similar size (by number of downloads), Dolphin, we can start to notice the differences. So what stops people from using mobile AR browsers?

Technology – Like any new technology, AR browsers are not fully stable and still under intensive development. As a result, they will surely have technical glitches, errors and bugs which are not seen with good eyes by today’s technology-savvy users who are less forgiving then they used to be.

‘Smart’ mobile devices – The devices that make all of these possible are also a serious threat to AR companies through their continuous fragmentation. Many operating systems, each with multiple versions operating on hundreds of different smartphones increase the developers’ pressure with a direct impact on quality and stability of the newly released software.

Innovation Adoption LifecycleComplacency – Any new technology goes through a ‘technology adoption lifecycle’ and mobile AR browsers are no exception. People’s resistance to change makes it harder for users of traditional mobile Internet browsers to suddenly start using their smartphone’s camera for search. Time and user education can have a positive effect on increasing the adoption speed.

Social – All media coverage of mobile AR browsers has given birth to a number of thoughts and worries which may affect its adoption. Starting from the awkward feeling of people watching you when moving your mobile camera around to more serious fears of being tracked down by criminals when posting on Twitter that you have just bought a new TV, these concerns can be easily tackled by developers and even users through their application’s settings. But the harm has already been done and changing a person’s negative perception is harder than creating it in the first place.

Competition – With more companies fighting for a piece of the $3 billion mobile AR market expected in 2016 (ABI Research), the increasing competition is not all good news for the consumer. In an attempt to be the first on the market, mobile AR browser developers are already pushing the latest technologies to the limit by launching new features before being fully tested and before providing the support users need, leading to complaints, bad reviews and poor user ratings.

Even if the mobile augmented reality browser is here to stay, widespread adoption may still be a few years away. Tackling the above issues and raising awareness about the benefits provided are key actions that will determine future success.

How do you see the future of mobile AR browsers? What other issues stop AR browsers from being widely adopted? Leave your comments and questions in the box below.