Augmented reality (AR) is one of the most exciting technologies that’s emerging today. But it’s not a monolithic technology: many people don’t realize that AR comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Understanding these AR modalities can help brands and startups that are interested in AR choose the optimal path. To that end, here are just five of the many flavors of AR that are developing and gaining traction today.
Marker-based AR was one of the first types of AR to become popular with consumers. It uses a physical marker in the real world to display virtual content. This might be a QR code or a specially marked image.
For example, a children’s toy could feature an AR trading card that appears when you scan a marker on the toy with your phone. When the phone’s camera does not have the marker in view, the virtual trading card disappears from the screen. In this sense, marker-based AR is “anchored” to distinct spots or objects in the real world.
Marker-based AR can use other physical objects as markers, such as common shapes or features. Snapchat filters are a great example of this. The AR lens uses the contours of the human face, and features like the eyes and nose, to scale a digital mask onto the user.
Speaking of Snapchat, it also sometimes uses Snapcodes – a variation on the common QR code – to launch its AR lenses. In fact, that’s the way its new Custom Landmarkers are launched.
Markerless AR is the opposite of marker-based. Rather than a user moving to a marker to pull up an AR image, the user directs where the AR image goes.
One of the most common examples of this is furniture-placement AR apps for interior design. The AR image isn’t tied to any one spot in a real-world room. The user can make it bigger or smaller and move it around any way they want. Markerless AR is good for situations where the AR image could be used in creative, unpredictable ways.
For example, there are countless ways a user might want to see an AR chair in their living room or an AR pair of shoes on their feet. They may even want to be able to move around and see the image from different angles. Using markerless AR for these types of applications allows users to have a more free-form, adaptable experience.
This is also a more advanced form of AR that was unlocked through advancements like Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, which are able to perform plane detection. By sensing flat surfaces, such as a horizontal floor, many of the above use cases can be accomplished.
Location-based AR is a sub-type of markerless AR, although it has some functional similarity to marker-based, as well.
Location-based AR uses a smart device’s live location to display AR objects. The user’s geographic location determines the AR images they can see on their display. In this way, location-based AR is a bit like marker-based since it isn’t as free-form as fully markerless AR.
Arguably the most well-known example of location-based AR is Pokémon Go, which is still going strong. It performs a sort of geographic augmentation by basing its game play (including animated overlays), based on location.
Location-based AR can also have practical use cases. For example, if you are traveling in a city you aren’t familiar with, AR navigation can offer 3D wayfinding to show you exactly how to get to specified destinations. This is the use case that Google Live View has popularized.
Another example was already noted above: Snapchat’s Landmarkers which animate real-world waypoints. And its new Custom Landmarkers could unlock greater potential and scale by opening up Landmarkers for anyone to create.
Projection-based AR is the most cutting-edge form of AR today. Unlike the other types, it uses no mobile device or screen at all. Instead, projectors create a virtual object or “holographic” screen. This is most commonly used for business applications, especially with remote work becoming more popular.
In fact, one of the best ways for remote teams to stay connected today is through a variety of communication channels, including AR. Projection-based AR is uniquely positioned to take off due to increases in remote and hybrid work arrangements.
For example, projection-based AR can be used in remote employee training. Since a teacher can’t be physically present, AR projections can guide an employee around a device or piece of software instead.
Projection-based AR also unlocks a whole new type of remote meeting. Rather than simply holding up a model or mock-up in front of a camera, team members can view their own 3D model in-person using projection-based AR.
Outlining AR walks the line between marker-based and markerless AR. Like marker-based AR, outlining uses image recognition and real-world objects to place AR lines. However, like markerless AR, it doesn’t rely on one specific marker and is adaptable to various settings and circumstances.
The most popular use of outlining AR is rearview cameras in cars. The camera’s display by the steering wheel projects lines onto the image outlining certain objects, like the edge of the street or another nearby vehicle. As AR tech continues to advance, outlining AR will become more popular in the automotive industry.
AR is one of today’s fastest-growing technologies. Exploring different types of AR is critical to gain an edge in discovering ways it may apply to your business or life. Over the next decade, AR is on track to become a mainstream, daily-use technology like laptops, smartphones, and QR codes.
But as that happens, the technology will continue to be a moving target. It will evolve just like the above technologies did. To put it another way, all of the flavors of AR outlined above may look different in five or ten years. And new AR modalities will organically emerge that we haven’t imagined yet.
Though there are many question marks in that future-gazing exercise, we can be fairly certain that AR will have meaningful impact on the ways we work, play, learn, shop, and live.