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AR has seen its ups and downs. The excitement and expectations that consumed 2016 and 2017 were followed by a bad hangover in 2018 and 2019. So where does that leave us now and where are we headed next? Can we pinpoint our current position in AR’s lifecycle?

Whenever this question arises, the go-to explanation is AR’s period of repentance in the “trough of disillusionment,” of Gartner’s Hype Cycle. This is a perfectly valid construct but it’s arguably overused as fodder in nearly every conference presentation these days on AR’s status.

So we’ve begun to think about AR’s lifecycle using a different construct: that of a pendulum. Often in early-stage sectors, a pendulum metaphorically swings in one direction that represents overblown expectations, supply-side saturation and lots of venture funding (arguably too much).

Then, it swings in the other direction as a bit of a backlash to the overabundance. That period is defined by sobering realizations that the technology isn’t ready, nor is it gaining the traction previously expected. A shakeout ensues as companies fail to secure additional funding.

2002, A Spatial Analogy

But once the worst of that backswing has passed, things move towards a happy medium. Markets then progress at a healthy pace, while supply and demand grow in step with each other. Just like gravity compels the pendulum to the center, market forces compel supply/demand equilibrium.

What follows is a more measured and realistic period of market growth. The previous hockey-stick growth charts give way to slower, but more reliable, industry revenue projections. Our research arm ARtillery Intelligence recently released AR and VR forecasts with this thinking represented.

A historical example is the 2000’s dot-com bubble. We saw overblown expectations, followed by a backlash/recessionary period. But then around 2002, things moved slowly towards measured progress, and the rise of tech giants like Google, Facebook, and the web 2.0 movement.

So that goes back to the question of where we are now with AR. Though the extent of the pendulum swing in either direction might be smaller, we believe AR is in that 2002 sweet spot where the worst is behind us, and we’re moving (slowly) towards healthy growth and equilibrium.

What makes us say that? There are lots of signals that AR’s 2018-2019 hangover has hit its high point, and that the sector is beginning to recover. There’s still a ways to go, but we’re starting to see meaningful traction and scale in mobile AR active use (not just AR-compatible phones).

Mounting Evidence

So what are those signals? At a high level, the biggest confidence signal is money. Tech giants’ investments in AR signals a level of self-serving motivation that will accelerate the technology, and move markets to some degree. Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft are all on that list.

But that’s more of a conceptual signal, and is one we’ve covered already — including a report, a chapter in Charlie Fink’s book and a presentation at AWE last month. What about more recent and tangible market signals that AR traction and revenue generation are moving in the right direction?

For one, consumer AR usage shows strong signs. In our consumer AR survey with Thrive Analytics, 67 percent of users reported monthly or greater frequency and 78 percent reported high or very high satisfaction. AR active users now total 334 million, up from 204 million last year.

Facebook meanwhile announced at F8 that it served a billion AR lens engagements over the past year across News Feed, Portal and Messenger. The biggest sleeping giant could be Instagram, where there’s fertile soil for AR among a camera-forward user base and shopping use case.

Snapchat has shown even more scale with 15 billion AR lens engagements over the past year, 142 million daily AR lens users and 500,000 lenses created to date. And the ad dollars are following, given strong performance for immersive product try-ons with branded AR lenses.

Organizational Layer

Speaking of Facebook’s billion lens engagements, Google has matched that figure in visual search activations for Google Lens. It also announced that Lens is capable of identifying one billion real-world objects, which will continue to grow to the extent of its visual database.

In fact, Google’s momentum with visual search could be the biggest confidence signal yet for AR. Not only does “following the money” provide confidence per the above point, but Google is showing tangible signs of accelerating AR, such as the integrations and announcements at I/O.

Visual search a la Google Lens is also our top pick for potential AR killer apps. As the technology is refined further and as Google continues to position it in the mobile search flow, it could grow into a high-frequency AR utility. And monetization will follow Google’s established search playbook.

Back to the pendulum, Google started creating immense value during the early-2000’s backswing. It did so with the web’s organizational layer: the search index. That’s where we are now with AR: pre-Google Index. Could the AR cloud be that organizational layer… and that inflection point?

Adding to all of the above, the ultimate confidence signal is Apple’s indications that it’s working on AR glasses. Though they won’t likely come in 2020, their eventual arrival could rise all boats by mainstreaming AR, as Apple tends to do to emerging categories through its signature halo effect.

Training Wheels

Further confidence signals come from the “training wheels” approach that was examined in the 2020 predictions of our research arm, ARtillery Intelligence. The thought is that successful AR strategies are starting to show the common trait of building on consumers’ existing behavior.

Instagram is one example. Not only is it a sleeping giant as mentioned, it has already conditioned a shopping and transactional use case, which is now enhanced by AR. It will succeed in driving AR ad revenue by adding the technology to existing product and fashion discovery behavior.

Another example of the “training-wheels” principle is the broader product category of wearables. The sector’s existing growth will feed into AR by acclimating users to wearing sensors on their bodies. Apple is already conditioning this use case (AirPods & Watch), as is Snap (Spectacles).

Meanwhile, we see compelling wild cards like Tilt Five. With the enormous perspective and technical chops of CEO Jerri Elsworth, it plays on the concept of “AR somewhere” as a stepping stone to “AR everywhere.” This embodies training wheels perhaps more than anything above.

We’ll be watching closely and reporting back daily to continue to triangulate where we are in AR’s lifecycle. Meanwhile, check out the latest report from our research arm ARtillery Intelligence, which looks at 2019 lessons, 2020 outlook and further triangulates AR’s position and course heading.

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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: Tilt Five