Augmented reality has not been a largely popular medium since its inception, the technology is still in its infancy and support in this sector is mostly experimental. Finding real-world applications for the technology seems a long way off and many of the projects that have seen success have seen its novelty wear off after a few months. 

For more on these previously popular AR apps, we recommend checking our article - Top 5 Augmented Reality Apps of 2016

AR has been largely ignored by the big players in the tech space, until now, Google has announced its foray into augmented reality with its Chrome browser. 

Googles play into AR

Google has begun to integrate augmented reality features into the mobile and desktop web using its Chrome browser. That way, web designers, media organizations, and other creative professionals could create virtual 3D objects, embed them into websites for viewing on desktop, and make them downloadable on mobile so users could place those objects into their real-world surroundings.

“In the next few months, there will be hundreds of millions of Android and iOS devices that are able to provide augmented reality experiences — meaning you’ll be able to look at the world through your phone, and place digital objects wherever you look,” writes Reza Ali and Josh Carpenter, who work on user experience on Google’s Daydream WebXR team. “

To help bring this to as many users as possible, we’ve been exploring how to bring augmented reality to the web platform, so someday anyone with a browser can access this new technology.”

How will Google Chrome augmented reality work?

Google is already set up to introduce a working prototype version of AR on Chrome and how it would work. It starts with a product tentatively called Article that Ali and Carpenter describe as a 3D model viewer for browsers. If Article is loaded on a desktop browser with a 3D model, it will display it as an interactive image you can drag to rotate. When placed in a webpage, the model could be animated similar to a GIF as a user scrolls to indicate it’s an interactive 3D model.

On mobile, the experience is much more sophisticated thanks to built-in cameras and sensors on modern smartphones. “The unique power of AR is to blend digital content with the real world,” the duo write. “So we can, for example, surf the web, find a model, place it in our room to see just how large it truly is, and physically walk around it.” You can see how this would work in action:

It’s easy to imagine how helpful this could be for all manner of activities, from entertainment to education. Just being able to load a Wikipedia page for the Moon landing, as Google suggests here, and drop a 3D model of an astronaut in a classroom would be a fascinating new way to teach children with interactive experiments.

“Article is just one in a series of prototypes, and there’s so much left to explore — from using light estimation to more seamlessly blend 3D objects with the real world, to adding diegetic UI annotations to specific positions on the model,” concludes Ali and Carpenter. “Mobile AR on the web is incredibly fun right now because there’s a lot to be discovered.”

Why is Google interested in augmented reality?

Of course, Google has a reason to want to develop mobile, browser-based AR. The company is currently competing with Apple and the iPhone maker’s ARKit framework to be the toolkit developers use to make apps and other AR-focused services. Google, which owns Android and the Play Store and has its own ARCore framework, nonetheless has a presence on iOS via the mobile web, where Chrome is a popular browser alternative to the iPhone’s built-in Safari.

By making AR work on mobile browsers, Google is able to maintain its cross-platform advantage. It’s also in Google’s interest to prevent AR from becoming an entirely app-based technology on mobile, as that would lock out Android users from AR experiences developed solely for iOS.

Augmented reality
Augmented reality has been confined to special devices and niche applications thus far

Creating a real market for augmented reality 

Companies who have moved into this space seem to be pushing for AR to become more than a novelty feature. The technology is in its infancy and is currently best-known for its gaming applications, like the blink-and-you-missed-it popularity of Pokémon Go. As the technology matures, much more impressive applications will be unveiled, which could help the tech to go from novel to transformative.

While the technology is still in an explorative phase there is already a growing concern about its implications on consumers. There are worries about the levels of immersion possible with AR could do more to increase growing issues like tech addiction. For the first time, the World Health Organization has listed gaming disorder as a mental health condition. This listing comes before we’ve even begun to see how the increased immersion afforded by AR and VR could exacerbate the issue.

Of course, the problem is not necessarily the technology itself but more of a self-control issue. Each time a new innovation is allowed to thrive in the market there will be those who will want to abuse it. The companies in AR should be aware that what users end up doing with the technology may not be what’s intended and some responsibility does fall on developers to take that power into consideration when creating products using this new tech. 

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