19 for ‘19: Augmented Reality Trends & How They May Play Out This Year

Source: Me via Snapchat

2018 definitely was an active and important year for AR.

$7 billion dollars was poured into augmented reality and computer vision investments according to Digi-Capital with two AR related companies (Epic Games and Magic Leap) holding the largest US ventures rounds and some memorable M&A activity from Apple (Akonia Holographics, Shazam, and Spektral), Lyft (Bluevision Labs) and even L’Oreal (Modiface). We said goodbye to pioneers like Blippar while saw others like Meta struggle and said hello to new hardware like the much anticipated Magic Leap One and a ton of platforms and tools from the likes of Unity, Unreal, Amazon, Adobe, and Facebook. We heard powerful stories from the enterprise demonstrating real ROI using AR and continued to see our social feeds and stories littered with people spewing rainbows as AR enabled smartphones inched towards the 1 billion milestone mark.

Despite all this activity, I would say that 2018 was not THE year of AR and 2019 won’t be either. But don’t get me wrong, 2019 will be filled with a TON of important achievements which will act as critical stepping stones in AR’s journey to become the life changing computing platform we all know it will be when it grows up. And boy, it is growing up fast!

As it is the new year, I took some time to think about 19 trends I am looking at and how they might play out this year. It is a long read, but hey it’s the next 365 days we are talking about so what do you expect!

Terminology

1 . Bye bye “XR”, hello “Spatial Computing”

Perhaps it was out of frustration and confusion or maybe simply exhaustion from saying all those two letter acronyms (AR/VR/MR) but 2018 saw the industry adopt the term “XR” to talk about this next wave of computing. The use of XR definitely was more convenient and also conveyed an eventual convergence of these “realities” but I am not sure it is serving us well and frankly Apple already robbed us of it anyway with the launch of the iPhone XR.

To the outside world it was also confusing. Many asked me what this new “XR” technology was and how it compared to other “-R” technologies. And I think our quick jump to use an umbrella term for technologies which are, in many ways, on their own journeys, caused us to overly bundle AR and VR in conversations and decision making which may have benefited from talking about them separately.

I suspect that 2019 will see many transition away from “XR” with the front running alternative being “spatial computing”. Many are already starting to adopt this term when referring to this space and frankly it provides much more immediate meaning than a two letter acronym which, to this day, I still get different answers as to what it stands for depending on whom I talk to.


Hardware

2. Connected eyewear returns but still has a hard time staying long on consumers faces

2019 will see the return of connected eyewear for consumers. We’ve seen this attempted many times before. Google tried it in 2013 with Google Glass. Snap gave it a go in 2016 with the first generation Spectacles. But so far, “face tech”, as I like to call it, hasn’t stayed on the few consumer faces it made it to for very long.

This year we will see North’s Focals, Bose AR sunglasses, Vuzix’s Blade, Snap’s 3rd generation Spectacles and Tencent’s Spectacles doppelganger all vie for a spot on your face and these won’t be the only brands to try to succeed where others have failed.

Source: Focals by North

While this next series of “smart glasses” will have a greater focus on fashion, which was said to be Google Glass’ achilles heel, I am not sure that the mainstream is ready for them — yet (on this I hope I am wrong). Glasses with cameras will have to wade through the murky waters of privacy and others will suffer from the same problem as other wearables — a weak value proposition in relation to the price to purchase, effort to charge, and the struggle to start a new behavior pattern of putting them on everyday.

That being said, I think this next wave will see us getting more right than we have before including the use of digital assistants to pull up content, pairing glasses with other wearables for input and interaction, a focus on a variety of styles and premium quality materials, and identifying some powerful use cases such as turn-by-turn navigation, real world audio tours and AR lenses. These glasses will also play a key role in educating developers who build for them and will pave the wave for next generation devices.

3. Context-aware hearables show us AR may be in the ear before our eyes

I recently rewatched the Spike Jonze film “Her” on Netflix which, if you haven’t done so recently, I highly recommend as the 2014 movie takes on a whole new meaning in a post-AirPods, Alexa enabled world.

Source: Her

While most of the attention of the AR industry is focused on putting things in our field of view to augment sight, a more probable AR future to come sooner than this is one based on augmented audio fueled by hearables embodied by digital assistants with some awareness of the environment around it — so basically “Her”.

2019 will start to see pieces of this future come together.

This year may see Siri become more active in AirPods, and Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa will continue to dominate as a core feature to any pair of headphones (or anything connected really). These assistants will start be much smarter by understanding the world around them and this is made possible through sensors and AI. Wearable sensors, such as the accelerometer and gyroscope in Bose AR, can be used to inform them of our position and movement so that they can provide us with information on what is around us. Computer-vision solutions like Google Lens, which is now available on Android and iOS smartphones, will equip them with the ability to identify billions of images. The latter could be made even easier with a foldable smartphone, another trend to watch in 2019, which may eventually become small enough to place in your pocket just like Joaquin Phoenix.

Hearables working as part of an ecosystem made up of your smartphone and other wearables such as a smartwatch and even a pair of camera-enabled glasses is also a plausible scenario for the much rumored Apple Glasses of 2020/2021.

4. Smart speakers demonstrate they are the trojan horse for AR in the home

This may be an unpopular thing to say right now but I am an avid Facebook Portal user. Privacy concerns aside, Facebook’s Portal was for me a standout hardware device for 2018 mainly because it made me love video calling where so many other devices have failed. But it also showed me something else really important: the role smart speakers with screens and cameras will play in bringing augmented reality into the home.

Source: Facebook Portal

Portal’s AR effects while video chatting, especially its novel use in Story Time mode, are a fun and compelling feature especially for kids. I am sure that this is just the start for Facebook as they continue to evolve AR functionality on other platforms that can be leveraged for this device. I suspect that we may see AR features launched on the latest generation Echo Show via a 3rd party app. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next version of Google Hub, Apple HomePod and/or Samsung Bixby devices launch with a camera to provide a similar offering.

Getting a camera in the home is an important step towards our smart home future and right now Facebook and Amazon are leveraging the smart speaker to do just that.

Today, the Facebook Portal is making video chat more fun and less self-conscious through the use of AR face filters. But tomorrow, these same cameras, with the help of computer vision, will be able to identify objects in your house, what you are wearing, how intently you are listening and even how you are feeling which will all be used by your digital assistants to serve you better.

Equipped with a screen, these devices may also soon become home to virtual humans of your choosing that will give a face and/or a body to your digital assistant and that will use the camera and microphone to make you feel like they are more real. We are already starting to see the beginnings of this in devices from Looking Glass Labs, Gatebox and Japanese messenger giant Line.

5. Google and Microsoft launch new hardware aimed at winning the next computing war in the enterprise

While it may not be time for smartglasses to be on the faces of consumers, these devices are proving to be valuable tools used at work. This isn’t surprising as most new tech works its way through the military and enterprise where it can prove its value and buy it time before its ready for the finicky mainstream to adopt.

This year we expect both Google and Microsoft to launch next generation hardware to grab a piece of the emerging AR enterprise market. Both are expected to have improvements that make them more ready to get to work: greater battery life, better processing power and improved wearability.

Google Glass (which never died btw just found a sweet spot at work) is expected to see its 2nd generation Enterprise Edition launch this year with minor spec bumps. This device is in use by some major industry players such as AGCO, DHL, The Boeing Company, and Volkswagen, and GE.

Microsoft HoloLens 2 is probably the most anticipated hardware launch of 2019 and it will have its aim squarely on the enterprise coming off of Microsoft’s win of a $480 million dollar contract with the US Army. HoloLens Developer and Commercial editions are currently out of stock fueling rumors that Microsoft is getting ready to launch this next generation device at its upcoming Build conference. Microsoft has already confirmed the next HoloLens will feature a custom AI coprocessor, enabling the devices to run AI workloads “at the edge.”and the Project Kinect for Azure depth-sensor kit they unveiled at Build 2018. Recently it was rumored that HoloLens 2 will also sport the Qualcomm SnapDragon 850 mobile processor.

Source: Microsoft HoloLens

But these are not the only devices to keep your eye on this year. The continued success of RealWear’s HMT-1, Magic Leap’s goal to become a work device as per the roadmap they presented at LEAP Con and possible devices that use Flex’s AR headset reference designed they debuted at CES 2018 are also on my radar.

6. AR plays an important role in the evolution of auto and car makers want to show us how

As the car moves from something we drive to assisted and eventually autonomous driving, car manufacturers are redefining what ‘mobility” means for drivers and passengers. AR is one of the technologies they are looking to assist with this evolution.

Source: WayRay

While 2019 won’t be when these in-car solutions come to market it will be another year car manufacturers give us a glimpse into what they are envisioning and preparing to launch. Keep watch on tech that gives vehicles “eyes” to see and understand the space in and outside the vehicle, as well as those changing how we interact with our windshield, passenger windows and other screens in the car. From navigation to infotainment, I expect to see a lot of this in 2019 starting with what is on the show floor at CES.

7. Advancements in senses other than sight begin to make AR more immersive and enable natural interaction

While we will continue to see advancements in technology needed to augment our sense of sight — computer vision, microdisplays, waveguide and lightfield in particular — 2019 will be a big year for the continued digitization of senses needed for AR to feel more immersive and enable more natural interaction.

Source: Senheiser

The three areas I am keeping my eye on this year are spatial audio, haptics and gesture control. Solutions such as the AMBEO AR One headset from Senheiser and Magic Leap which can mix the digital sound with the physical world, radar systems like Project Soli from Google and three-dimensional shapes created from ultrasound like those from Ultrahaptics get me really excited for what’s to come in this space.


Platforms, Tools and Infrastructure

8. 2019 is the year of the Creator as authoring tools equip a whole new generation who will define the future of AR

2018 was a big year for platforms aimed at equipping creators with the tools they need to build AR experiences more efficiently. Adobe debuted its Project Aero creation tool for the Creative Cloud. Facebook renamed its camera effects platform to Spark AR and expanded it to Instagram. And Snap Lens Studio turned one years old and with it celebrated more than 250,000 Lenses which have been viewed more than 15 billion times.

Source: Snap

With these platforms, and others such as Amazon Sumerian and Torch, readily available for use — this year is well positioned to be the year of the AR creator (h/t to Ori Inbar for this one). 2019 will see a huge influx of creators get their feet wet with AR as they create their first hello (3D) worlds. Creators will demonstrate new, novel and value-added ways to use AR and help define a new user experience which will become unique to this technology. You can already see this happen by taking a sneak peek at the active Spark AR community on Facebook or Snap Lens Creations on Snapchat, an activity that has become a favorite pastime of mine.

9. Our heads will be in the AR Cloud again this year and it will enable AR to feel more real and less lonely

2018 certainly was all about the AR Cloud. The race to map the world to provide computers with the spatial awareness they need to make AR a true reality is on. 6D.ai and Ubiquity6 came out of stealth. Bluevision Labs got acquired for a reportedly $100M by Lyft. Niantic Labs bought AR Cloud startup Escher Reality and previewed how this tech could elevate a 3D Pikachu. The Open AR Cloud Organization launched at AWE USA 2018 and both Magic Leap and Samsung debuted their AR Cloud efforts called Magicverse and Project Whare respectively.

6D.ai (a Super Ventures portfolio company) has done a great job at demonstrating how critical the AR Cloud is in unlocking next level AR experiences through developer demos which use their Beta SDK to show off its occlusion, persistence and multi-player capabilities it can enable.

Source: 6D.ai

It is clear that the AR Cloud is necessary to enable next level AR experiences and with solutions beginning to become available to developers in 2019 we should start to see AR feel much more real and way less lonely.

10. WebAR plays an important role in consumer education by reducing the friction of AR

2018 was actually a pretty awesome year for web augmented reality in that the opportunity became real and was rolled out to the masses thanks to Magic Leap’s Helio, Apple’s AR Quick Look and especially a new product offering from 8th Wall.

Source: 8th Wall

I am excited to see how much further WebAR will grow in 2019. We may even see Google’s much anticipated Chrome AR move out of the experimentation mode we saw at Google I/O 2018 and into the hands of users.

WebAR experiences in 2019 will offer a limited experience compared to applications but it will play an even greater role in educating the consumer market on what AR is all about by removing the friction to access and experience it. For this reason it will be a lucrative platform for advertisers and marketers to exploit.

11. 5G tests and limited rollouts will prove why it is the missing ingredient to this next wave of computing

One of the most important ingredients for our augmented reality future is 5G. 5G’s promise of high speed, low power and low latency are set to take both AR and VR experiences to the next level.

2019 will be a critical year for 5G as we will begin to see a number of carriers and device manufacturers slowly rollout this major advancement in connectivity. AT&T and Verizon have already debuted 5G hotspots and it is expected that we will see 5G-enabled phones using Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon chip including Samsung’s Galaxy S10 which should be a major highlight at Mobile World Congress 2019.

While 5G is not expected to be widespread until 2020, the limited networks and devices available in 2019 will be used to illustrate why upgrading your device and carrier plan to 5G will be worth it. This will include showing how 5G can enable better augmented reality. Verizon’s Open Innovation Labs have already begun to demonstrate 5G-enabled AR experiences with projects of their own and from startups like Arvizio. I suspect we will continue to see carriers use AR to market 5G at trade shows, in-store and other campaigns this year.


Investments

12. Investors remain cautious in investing in AR but some big wins bolster their confidence

2018 was an active year for AR investments. While an increasing number of investors have grown savvy to the massive investment opportunity in AR, for startups, especially those in the Seed stage in the USA, it was a tougher time to raise capital as the hype around AR quickly dissipated into reality. With all platforms in play, including the much anticipated Magic Leap, and the mobile AR opportunity better understood, with ARKit and ARCore apps over a year old in the market, investors had a lot more than simply hypothesis to base their decisions on when investing in AR. I also think AR startups felt the chill from the supposed “VR Winter”.

While I do expect increased interest from investors in AR this year, I don’t expect things to get any easier for AR startups looking for funding. This means that if you are looking for capital, your pitch is not going to fly based on the “promise” of AR but rather what viable market opportunity you are addressing and how that is going to realize revenue/traction.

That being said, I suspect that new hardware, such as HoloLens 2, continued success stories in the enterprise, and some big wins such as Wizards Unite from Niantic and possibly a huge M&A deal involving an AR company this year will bolster confidence in this space.


Consumer Solutions

13. 2019 will be the Year of Mobile AR Advertising

Advertisers are not new to augmented reality. In 2009, I was working with big brands to bring their messages to life in magazines and newspapers with the use of AR and Snapchat has been leading the charge with AR ad formats like face filters (Lens) and AR games (Snappables) since it introduced augmented reality as a feature in its app back in 2015.

2018 was a good year for AR ads thanks to new platform opportunities for marketers such as Facebook’s tests of “Try Before You Buy” AR ads in Messenger, Snap’s “Shoppable AR” feature, and AR experiences powered by ARKit such as the brilliant Häagen-Dazs musical AR timer app “Concerto”.

Source: Facebook / Michael Kors

But with 1 billion AR capable phones expected this year, Snap’s introduction of programmatic AR advertising, Apple’s USDZ format and QuickLook in iOS 12, Facebook’s push of AR advertising as part of the News Feed and Google Lens now on iOS and Android with the ability to identify billions of images — 2019 is teed up to be the year for mobile AR advertising.

With AR no longer an expensive ad format on just one social network (Snapchat at 180 million users), advertisers will have a more compelling reason to carve out a percentage of their digital spend for this type of consumer engagement because of scale (Facebook’s AR in the news feed alone widens the net to 2.8 Billion) and because they work (Houzz has seen 11x conversion with the use of AR). Measurement is key to any ad ecosystem and I expect to see a growing demand from advertisers for more robust analytics specific to 3D on top of the typical clicks they are used to measuring.

In return, the variety of places end users will be forced to interact with AR ads will be a key step in educating and assisting user adoption of this technology.

14. The democratization of special effects continues to be the killer app for consumer mobile AR

Yes this will be another year for dog faces, rainbows spewing from mouths and dancing hot dogs. Face filters and world lenses — once only contained to Snapchat — will continue to be added to other social apps like TikTok and Instagram turning everyday social posts into something EXTRAordinary.

User generated content elevated by augmented reality (or remixing reality as I like to call it) is most definitely today’s killer app for consumer mobile AR and it will hold its crown again for 2019. But I expect this year we will see some new tricks such as segmentation of other body parts, the rise of 3rd party filters and lenses made by creators, and a growing understanding by users that they can turn the camera around to place digital objects in the world around them.

AR will be used by social influencers to help their posts stand out from the crowd. But we may even see the rise of a new generation of social influencers that master the art of AR to create a whole new type of social feed — one filled with wonder and disbelief — especially as CGI and VFX tools are democratized to the every day poster through augmented reality.

15. Wizards Unite brings the magic of AR gaming back to the masses in an even bigger way than Pokemon Go

In 2016, Niantic took the world by storm with its widely successful location-based game Pokemon Go which has reportedly made over $2 billion to date and woke up the AR opportunity for many including investors, media and developers. Pokemon Go got people engaging with technology outside in the real world, proving that the mainstream was ready to do something new with their phone provided it was attached to a strong IP.

Niantic, which is now valued at nearly $4 billion dollars, is expected to be back in 2019 with its much anticipated Harry Potter AR game, Wizards Unite. Like Pokemon Go, Niantic is relying on a strong IP to create another AR craze. With Potter arguably an even stronger IP than Pokemon (sorry Pikachu fans), advancements in AR from Niantic and the use of ARCore/ARKit, not to mention a much more educated mobile AR user base — it is entirely possible that “Harry Potter Go” is going to make Pokemon feel like a dry run.

Source: Niantic

But Harry Potter won’t be the only strong IP to try to capitalize on the AR gaming gold rush. 2019 will see a ton of brand names launch mobile apps to get you and your friends holding up your phone and moving around outside.

16. Navigation emerges as a killer productivity use case for AR starting with tests in malls and airports

One of the most common use cases for your smartphone is using its GPS to help you get from point A to point B. But as great as our current map applications are today they have blind spots especially when it comes to indoor navigation.

The bigger players have already shown their focus on advancing maps. In May of 2018, Google showcased a cute little fox that would guide us around the city in an augmented reality upgrade to Google Maps using its VPS “Visual Positioning System”. Apple confirmed it is rebuilding its Maps from the ground up and has put more LIDAR-enabled cars on the road while expanding its indoor maps to more airports and malls around the world. And MapBox demoed an indoor AR maps application for its San Francisco office which used its Maps SDK for Unity.

Source: Google

One of AR’s killer productivity consumer use case will most certainly be navigation and 2019 will be the year we get a taste of it.

While I don’t suspect we will see a massive roll-out of AR world maps this year, I do expect we will see it available for select large high-traffic indoor areas such as shopping malls, airports, cruise ships theme parks, or similar. AR way finding as a feature for supported locations within an app is definitely on the horizon.

17. Avatars are the new stickers and the rise of virtual celebrities as well as virtual YOU

The launch of Memoji, Japan’s growing population of VTubers, and Lil Miquela’s impressive year as an Instagram star are just a few of the highlights in 2018 which pointed to the massive opportunity of avatars and virtual humans. 2019 will continue to see this space heat up and evolve.

Swapping out your head for your digital self or another avatar completely is quickly becoming a staple in video and messaging apps. Right now the offerings are limited, especially with Memoji which are 100% owned by Apple, but I suspect we will see this open up like the sticker market to allow 3rd parties to provide a sea of new content which we can use while video chatting or sending audio messages to our friends. Improvements in facial capture will also help to make these experiences even more real.

In Japan, there are over 4,000 virtual VTubers — YouTube stars that are opting to be represented by an avatar rather than their real self. Right now the method to facilitate this requires some skill, effort and time but we are sure to see tools which will help YouTubers who would rather be an anime or cartoon character do so with ease. Snap’s launch of a desktop camera effects app last year has already got the ball rolling by equipping Twitch streamers and YouTube stars with a new way to express themselves using AR filters and lenses.

Source: Snap

Brud is dominating the virtual influencer space with Lil Miquela and her squad of virtual humans. Right now Brud’s characters are CGI creations in your Instagram feed but this year we may start to see how virtual humans combined with digital assistants and other chatbot systems can bring virtual humans to life. I suspect that we will see some major celebrities jump on the virtual human bandwagon as well, launching a copy of themselves they can monetize as part of AR experiences. Doubling yourself won’t just be for the rich and famous however, keep an eye on platforms like Snap’s Bitmoji platform and advancements in photogrammetry which will allow everyday people to create and use their own digital twin.

Enterprise Market

18. Assisted reality solutions continue to show real ROI in the enterprise but value is not what’s holding AR back in this space

2018 saw a wealth of data coming out of the corporations testing and piloting augmented reality solutions to better their business and let me tell you, I am here for it! Keep sharing!

Assisted reality is by far the most common use of AR today as heads-up display and tablet-based solutions are turning amateur workers into professionals by providing them with step-by-step instructions at eye level and allowing them to lend their eyes to team members that can offer remote assistance by seeing what they are seeing from the first person perspective. These solutions are realizing real ROI for companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Toyota, GE, Caterpillar, NASA and more and tout an increased efficiency of workers of up to 40%.

Source: Upskill

This year, I expect we will hear more stats and stories on the use of AR in the enterprise including some that suggest that we are closer to seeing solutions move from R&D and pilot stages to larger roll-outs. Resistance of change from IT teams, long and complex procurement cycles, demand for greater security, lack of a readily available digital twin and smartglasses not entirely suitable for a full days work are just some of the challenges holding AR back in this space.

Keep an eye on military, aerospace, manufacturing, supply chain, oil & gas, automotive, retail and pharmaceuticals as just some of the sectors extremely active in this space.

19. Advancements in telepresence continue to show us the future of video conferencing is near

Telepresence solutions will continue to demonstrate how augmented reality will change the way we communicate and collaborate in a world where remote working is the new normal. It also has the potential to cement itself as a killer app for AR in the enterprise.

Source: Spatial

What is PowerPoint in AR? How do you share ideas in a 3D virtual space? To answer these questions and others around the future of work in AR, I am keeping an eye on startups like Spatial and Mimesys on the choices they make in product features and especially user experience. I will also be watching Microsoft and Magic Leap who have already shown a keen focus on these types of AR solutions.

But I suspect that these players won’t be alone as traditional web conferencing players, such as Cisco and Zoom, may show their future of video conferencing.


Congrats you made it to the end! So what did you think? Did I miss something you have on your radar? Or was there something on this list that completely missed the mark or surprised you? I’d love to hear about it!


Disclaimer: This post represents my own thoughts on the AR space and is not intended to reflect the opinions of the organizations I work for and/or represent. In addition, this post was created based on an analysis and extrapolation of publicly available information.