This article examines the latest episode of The AR Show. Based on a new collaboration, episode coverage will join the AR Insider editorial flow including narrative insights and episode audio. See past and future episode coverage here.


Though it’s not always the case, past behavior can indicate future outcomes. There are several lessons from the past few decades of tech evolution that can inform AR strategic planning or product road maps. This is an exercise in choosing the right lessons and, as always, timing.

This was one theme AR Insider’s Mike Boland discussed with Jason McDowall on the latest episode of the AR Show. With an eye to AR’s continued evolution and cultural adoption, what can we learn from how things played out in the web and mobile revolutions of the past few decades?

The smartphone revolution is obviously closer to memory. And there, we can look to things like market pacing and killer app timing. It took a few years and new/native thinking before we ended up with smartphone killer apps. Sometimes we forget that this cycle took a few years.

“We often forget that when the iPhone came out in 2007, high penetration levels didn’t happen until about three years later. And it wasn’t till a year later in 2008, that there was even an app store…. Applying that to today is interesting and, in some ways encouraging, because a lot of people are pointing at AR and saying ‘where’s the killer app?’… So if we count from the June 2017 launch of ARkit, three years from there is June 2020. So I think if we don’t see killer apps at that point or after, then we can start to worry.”

The big question that follows is what will those killer apps be. Again looking to historical lessons, killer apps aren’t often the sexy and novel things that capture all the initial excitement, but rather boring, mundane utilities that follow. These generally have higher frequency and value.

“I think some of the current use cases like sharing socially-infused visual lenses with friends, the novelty on that could wear off… I think ‘boring’ is going to win, like mundane use cases that are more high frequency. If you think about the killer apps on the web, it’s not sexy stuff. It’s email, search, news, social networking. So if we’re going to get to some of those bigger numbers and inch towards mainstream use, it’s going to be some of those things that are more mundane but more frequent and useful things throughout peoples’ day.”

Beyond the “when?” and “what?” there’s the question of “who?”. The ‘big 5’ continue to develop AR platforms. They’re acting in self-interested ways, but could they also pave the roads and accelerate AR? And is there room for all of them, just like they coexist in other areas of tech?

Boland and McDowall run through each of these players — Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft — to compare and contrast their AR ambitions. They also discuss Snap, given its leading position in generating AR ad revenues. Collectively, where does this all point?

“When you look at [the big five’s] motivations for investing in various points of the spatial computing spectrum, they’re all different. But there’s one common thread, which is to protect, grow, and pave the future path for their core businesses. The reason that’s important is that if we can answer the question of ‘why?’ and what their motivations are, we can triangulate where they’re going, which is valuable for startups and anyone working on product roadmaps. The gravitational pull of these companies can pull the market along with them.”

For example, Apple has the most amount of AR speculation surrounding it, including potential AR glasses. But using the above construct, what are its motivations? This could point to a full suite of wearables (including glasses) that succeeds the iPhone as Cupertino’s cash cow.

As we examined recently, this fits Apple’s need to prolong the life of the iPhone through phone-tethered AR glasses. But also works towards its succession plan. And a constelation of wearables fits another key Apple M.O.: locking us in with greater incentive for multi-device ownership.

“It’s not just the glasses. I think it’s this holistic suite of wearables where you have line-of-sight graphical annotations from glasses; biometric tracking and information delivered to your watch; and Airpods as a gateway to audible AR. Another thing Apple does is they like locking you into an ecosystem. And when you have three different devices — glasses, watch, hearables — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the incentive to get all three is very much the ARPU (average revenue per user) metrics that Apple loves.”

It’s also about a hardware installed base, which is developing along several vectors including mobile devices, AR glasses and hearables. We’re far from where we need to be given about 334 million mobile AR active users, and 130,000 AR headsets. And it will take a while to get there.

The target (which applies to VR too) is 100 million units. As we saw with smartphones and other hardware, historically that’s the magic number where you start to see a flywheel effect between consumer adoption and incentivized content creation… followed by further device penetration.

“Once you pass 100 million, there becomes this kind of flywheel effect, where there is incentive for developers and content creators pay attention to and build for those platforms. Then there’s more content on those platforms. So then it becomes more attractive to consumers. And that increased level of consumer further incentivize developers and it’s a virtuous cycle. Then the path to 200 million is a lot faster, and it just accelerates…. That’s what happened in the smartphone world, before things really started to take off.”

Check out the full episode for several other topics like hearables, AR’s societal benefit, seethrough optics vs. passthrough video, and lots of numbers.

Listen to the full episode at The AR Show or below, and see our archive of past and future episode coverage here.


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Disclosure: AR Insider has no financial stake in the companies mentioned in this post, nor received payment for its production. Disclosure and ethics policy can be seen here.

Header Image Credit: Microsoft