How Augmented Reality will get teens out of the house again

introducing Social AR
Example of near-future Social AR (source: Spilly)

Much has been made lately of the ill effects of the social internet 10 years on — that it disconnects us, shortens our attention spans, and gives us anxiety. If you, like us, are a millennial or older, you’re likely very conscious of these changes. But if you’re in this group there’s still much about life that hasn’t changed. Most of us remain bound to fixed schedules that technology has yet to upend; we get up, go to work for eight or more hours and go home. Today’s teenagers, by contrast, have significantly more time to spend on the social internet. As true digital natives, they’re its most adept users, and people for whom tech is an inextricable part of their sense of self. Because of this, it is teens that have seen the most dramatic changes in the way they live and interact with one another, even when compared to those born only five years earlier. They’re spending a lot of time communicating online, and crucially more time than ever apart from each other.

Teen social behaviors have been drastically altered by the smartphone (source: Prof. Jean Twendge, SD State)

It’s perhaps tempting to react to this by becoming modern day Luddites and barring both our kids and ourselves from all tech, but that only serves to delay the need for solutions. The pace and pervasiveness of tech innovation is increasingly exponential. Rapidly maturing areas like augmented reality (AR) are shifting the focus away from the screen and back to the world in front of you. With this change, there’s a great opportunity to restore some of what we’ve lost, like face-to-face interaction, and shared experiences. And if we can start to solve this for teens, we‘ll be way ahead in solving it for the rest of us.

At Spilly, we’re a creative team of Neural Net engineers and Game Designers who see AR as an opportunity for positive social impact, as a partial antidote to these issues using what we call “shared play”. Our mission is to create AR camera experiences that encourage people to get out and have fun together. That being said, it’s still early days for AR. Anyone who’s being honest will acknowledge that today’s smartphone AR, which is prompted by your having to hold up a phone and point it at something, is infinitely more limited in the scope of its use cases when compared to upcoming glasses-based AR. So as creators, we have to start small.

When our team sat down to chart our course in early 2017 we had several key considerations — we wanted to build products that satisfied our vision, that our target users wanted, powered by novel, new computer vision tech that required significant development lead time. This meant we needed to decide on our technology even before we’d be ready to test app prototypes with users. We started by hedging our bets and testing solitary AR experiences but we knew a decision had to be made and that our past experience offered some clues. Scouring the data from Splash, our previous 360 video capture app, as well as data on the broader social internet, we started by looking at what types of content were most interesting to people. We saw that that people-based videos consistently showed the highest engagement — people are most interested in people. Go figure. When combined with our desire to encourage face-to-face interaction, the choice was clear. People would be our focus.

We immediately shifted to creating prototype apps for two or more people. Regular focus groups were brought in to workshop and test. After the second group it was clear that the teens were more engaged by these newly social experiences. Not only were they visibly having more fun, they were spending more time in the apps, creating more content, and crucially, using them repeatedly after all tests had ended.

Social AR is used to trigger in-person collaboration or competition (source: FameFace app by Spilly)

We saw a clear pattern in the apps that succeeded. In all cases, the camera was either prompting a creative collaboration, to play as characters in an augmented video for example, or prompting a playful back-and-forth between friends, by pranking or one-upping each other. In both cases the camera is a toy to encourage participation. It acts as the centerpiece in a new kind of interaction. We call this Social AR.

In Social AR, people are the triggers for a new kind of shared moment, powered by human-centric camera AI . This all comes at a time when multiple studies have shown that no one wants to see your selfies anymore. Our tech is optimized for the rear-facing camera — as in how you see the world — rather than the selfie-dominated front camera AR seen in existing apps. Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore focus on rear-camera surfaces, which will be an important part of the future, but we’ve yet to see use cases catch on for that beyond some very cool furniture measurement. Both forms of tracking will be essential pillars of glasses-based AR, which will be “always on”, continuously detecting and classifying the people, surfaces and objects around you.

Timeline of Consumer AR — origins to 2020 and beyond

What we’re doing with Social AR is encouraging and augmenting social contexts. Context, i.e. the content of your surroundings, is the seed from which good AR experiences grow. While early AR examples, like seeing an elephant in the palm of your hand, are cool novelties, they fail to provide real, sustained value because they’re not a natural extension of the context in which they’re in. This matters because AR works best as a new kind of mediator in your interaction with the world; to either compliment your experience or flip it on its head and create experiences that couldn’t otherwise exist — Social AR is one such type of experience where people provide the context for a whole host of fun interactions. As technology advances, it will grow in its scope and complexity, as the trigger for a whole host of transactions, or large scale gaming experiences, but we’re starting our first foray into this this week by launching a suite of fun, irreverent apps that we think teens will love. It’s our first foray into a big future.