Excitement about virtual reality and augmented reality has swirled around new social media apps (like Snapchat) and hardware products for years. While products like Google Glass have fallen dramatically short of expectations, AR is being implemented in apps and social media more frequently and more seamlessly than ever before. As technology and mainstream acceptance improve, we’re inching closer to a reality where AR is commonplace.
The largest companies in the world, from Apple to Facebook, are working on making AR a part of our everyday online experiences, and social media is at the forefront of AR’s widespread adoption.
When we think of AR on social media, Snapchat’s face filters are likely the first thing that comes to mind. They’re immediately recognizable and when they were launched, they signaled a major shift in the consumer availability of AR features. Before Snapchat’s filters, though, there was Google Glass.
Framed as a game-changing technology that would allow users to view digital content overlaid on the real world around them, Google Glass was a promising idea that became a real-world failure. Unable to escape a reputation as an elitist status symbol and the scrutiny of its stealthy recording features, Google Glass and its AR technology never found a place in the mainstream.
But AR found new life in smartphones and social media apps. Through filters and effects, AR began fumbling toward becoming a mainstream reality as users experimented with and found ways to use these features. By putting AR in the hands of active social media users, Snapchat, in particular, helped push mainstream acceptance of the technology forward. With Snapchat, AR became something that wasn’t limited to people wealthy enough to afford Google Glass, but an emerging technology that could be used by everyone with a smartphone.
AR moved beyond Snapchat, too. Pokémon Go, Niantic’s breakout hit of 2016, was clear proof that AR wasn’t just for selfies — we could make it work on the world around us, turning our surroundings into a virtual playground. If Snapchat’s use of AR was proof of concept, Pokémon Go’s application was proof that it wasn’t limited to selfies.
Following its less-than-stellar Q1 2017 earnings report, Snap’s looking to lure users back with a brand new feature that’s unique to Snapchat — at least for now. Snapchat introduced Sponsored World Lenses, a feature that lets Snapchatters use sponsored augmented reality filters to enhance any snap, not just selfies. Not to be outdone, Facebook-owned Instagram introduced AR-enabled Face Filters (much like Snapchat’s) just one day later.
Though these features are new, it’s significant that they don’t feel particularly novel. In fact, they seem like logical extensions of features that are already available — a sign that AR isn’t just a passing fad, but a technology that’s developing and evolving.
Augmented Reality was a major talking point at last month’s F8 (the eighth iteration of Facebook’s annual conference), where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “We are going to make the camera the first augmented reality platform.” Facebook’s released filter and effects features on several of its apps, but a key element of Facebook’s AR strategy is its Camera Effects Platform, which includes its AR Studio and Frame Studio. The platform encourages designers and developers to build interactive features and effects, opening the idea of AR on Facebook to a massive creative force rather than a small in-house team (like Snapchat’s).
AR has made significant changes to the way that we communicate, create, and share through social media. And that’s just the beginning. As we see Snap rebranding as a camera company and Facebook investing time, money, and talent into VR and AR, it’s clear that AR isn’t going anywhere. In fact, we’ve just begun to grasp what AR can do for us.
Zuckerberg described the AR features in its app and Camera Effects Platform as “phase one.” Facebook’s clear ambition is to develop more robust AR offerings and to put the camera at the center of those AR features. Moreover, it has a vision for building AR glasses, but according to Chief Scientist of Oculus Research Michael Abrash, they’re anywhere from 5-10 years off.
Snap’s been more secretive about its AR plans, but its acquisition of AR startup Cimagine Media in December and the success of Spectacles (which are on track to be tech’s next $5 billion product) indicate that its ambitions may not begin and end with Snapchat. Earlier this year, Snap made some significant hires from the hardware space.
Most significantly, Snap recently filed a patent for “Image Based Tracking In Augmented Reality Systems.” The patent filing outlines methods for AR application in wearables, describing possibilities for “an augmented reality helmet, an augmented reality visor, glasses, and an augmented reality glasses attachment” that would communicate with smartphones.
It’s worth noting that companies file patents for things they don’t end up developing all the time. A stroll through the patent archives is an exercise in uncovering some truly bizarre ideas. But what’s described in Snap’s patent filing feels like what we’ve always imagined AR might be: information and images laid over the real world, supplementing it in real time with a (relatively) practical wearable. Perhaps the coolest part, though, is the patent illustration depicting a massive T-Rex thundering down a city block:
With two social media giants making big bets on AR (and Apple in the wings), it’s clear that AR on social media is just beginning. How it will look and function remains to be seen, but it’s almost certainly going to change our relationship with our platforms and devices all over again.