When it comes to augmented reality, it’s glasses or bust

Augmented reality (AR) is the next big thing. At least, that’s what Tim Cook believes, and he’s not alone. There are several companies betting on AR as the next great computing platform. Apple has been building tools for AR development for iPhone and iPad for a few years now.

AR is here today on our iPhones and iPads. Why isn’t it a bigger deal? Why aren’t everyday users as excited about the potential of AR as Tim Cook is? Why aren’t all our everyday apps rushing to make it a core feature, or even an essential one?

I believe it’s because AR on our phones and tablets is never going to take off. It just barely qualifies as AR, and suffers both cognitive limitations and usability challenges that are almost insurmountable. For AR to reach its potential, it must reach us in the form of glasses.

Defining Augmented Reality

Before explaining why I think glasses are essential to AR’s success, I should set some ground rules about what exactly constitutes augmented reality.

Simply put, AR incorporates computer-generated graphics with the real world around you. It generates objects or effects that have the correct scale, orientation, position, and (to some degree) lighting to appear as the objects in reality do. And as our view of reality shifts, so too does the scale, position, and orientation of the virtual objects. AR graphics don’t have to look realistic, but they do have to look realistically located.

There are some gimmicks in photo-sharing apps that are billed as “AR” but don’t meet these criteria. It’s usually just a 3D object placed anywhere the scene, with no regard for correct scale, position, or orientation.

pokemon go ar compare Niantic

Pokémon Go’s original AR mode (left) wasn’t really AR. But nobody really cared much when real AR was introduced (right).

For example, when Pokémon Go launched, its “AR” mode for capturing Pokémon worked this way: You just rotated until you were facing a certain direction and there would be a little critter floating there, on top of a door or your computer monitor or whatever. The app has since updated this feature to a “true” AR mode, which finds ground planes and creatures are placed on them in the correct scale and orientation. You can move around them, looking at different perspectives. Move closer and they get bigger, staying rooted to a specific position in real-world space.

Nobody cares about phone AR

Pokémon Go is probably the best example of just how little people actually care about phone AR. While always billed as an “augmented reality game” by the mainstream press, the hook that made Pokémon Go popular was it’s location-based gameplay. The so-called AR mode (which wasn’t, at first) was always optional, and most players turned it off to save battery life.