With advancements in technology and infrastructure, investment and activity from major players and a world forever changed by a pandemic, augmented reality is moving at a fast pace with no signs of it slowing down.
Every year I take some time to jot down the trends I expect will dominate the AR space and this post outlines the 21 augmented reality trends I will be keeping an eye on for 2021.
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#1 The pandemic has made virtual the new normal, accelerating the adoption of augmented reality
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to stop how it was originally functioning and made it look for new ways to survive. Technology has become a lifeline for businesses and people alike, affording a way to continue to do work and stay connected with friends and family. With shelter-in-place coming up on its first year anniversary for many, our use and reliance on technologies such as video conferencing and augmented reality will continue this year and will most likely stay post-pandemic.
This new need for technologies that enable virtual moments, as well as a demand for these virtual experiences to feel more real, has accelerated the adoption of augmented reality which had already been on a steady trajectory to become the next wave of computing.
Virtual has become the new normal.
#2 Consumers get fashionable smartglasses this year but this is more a return of Google Glass than HoloLens for the masses
2021 will be a significant year for consumer smartglasses as we are expecting to see a number of options become available to the mainstream. These devices, however, will most likely be more like the return of Google Glass (heads-up displays which show notifications, connect to voice assistants, and take photos) rather than the rollout of HoloLens to the masses (AR glasses that sense your world and place digital information and objects within it).
But this is no longer 2013, the year when Google Glass was first released, things have changed which better position a device like this for success. For one, wearable technology, such as smartwatches, hearables and even VR HMDs, are now commonplace. Our relationship with technology has also changed, not just because of the pandemic, but also because we have now had our smartphones in our hands for eight years longer than when Glass hit the scene and are looking for new ways to use it. In addition, advancements in technology have allowed for these glasses to be smaller, lighter and more wearable and networks and other technologies such as voice assistants have evolved to be more ready to help these glasses deliver value to the wearer.
The smartglasses of 2021 will be more wearable than ever before, with technology players partnering up with fashion brands to make them more fashionable, and some focused on not just being connected but being better glasses, with lenses which automatically adjust to environmental conditions and a users’ changing prescription. All of these offerings will most likely be smartphone accessories, possibly connecting to other wearables such as smartwatches, and many will be sold through major carriers as a way to market 5G. While all of this will be a step in the right direction, what still remains unclear is if these early entrants will be able to demonstrate the value needed to convince the public to not just purchase but also wear them on a regular basis.
2021 will mark an important start for a new generation of consumer wearables, ones that we wear on our face instead of our wrist, but it may not be the year we see significant adoption of this new device. As such, it’s important not to let glasses distract you from the real consumer AR opportunity which lays in the hands of users today, mobile AR.
#3 Spatial sensors demonstrate AR beyond the camera and illustrate how a series of sensors will be needed for immersion
When we think about AR we immediately go to the camera as the main sensor. While this is true in most cases, there is a brand new suite of spatial sensors powerful enough to sense the environment which will also play a major role in AR.
In 2020, we saw LiDAR depth sensors, spatially aware ultra wideband (UWB) radio waves and spatial audio fueled by dynamic head tracking take center stage in tablets, smartphones, smart speakers and hearables. LiDAR not only makes AR feel more real but it can be used to create scans of environments and objects which can be used for AR purposes. A UWB-equipped device can detect its exact position relative to other UWB devices in the same room which can create a spatially aware experience. And spatial audio enriches visual AR experiences to make them ”feel” more real as the sound responds to the movement of your head.
With devices now equipped with these ingredients (and possibly more to come), 2021 will start to see developers make use of these sensors to create new ways to augment our reality such as AR experiences which have a better understanding of our environments including the people and things within it, those that sound more “real” as well as audio-only AR solutions, or what is also known as augmented audio.
Interestingly enough, non-camera sensors could also be key to collecting information about the environment in a manner which seems more private to the end user. In addition, as hearables are already well established wearables in the market today, augmented audio via hearables may be the first type of wearable AR consumers adopt before smartglasses.
#4 Enabled with 5G, powerful chips and better displays and cameras, the smartphone has never been more ready for AR then now
With an estimated 221 million 5G mobile phones in market from major OEMs like Apple, Samsung and LG, and 5G expecting to account for a third of all smartphones sold in 2021 reaching with 539 million units shipped according to Gartner, 5G is no longer coming, it is already here.
5G has long promised to usher in AR and VR in a very similar way that 3G did for mobile video and 4G for social media and apps. 5G enables richer visual content, lower latency and consistent quality for extreme throughput dependent AR experiences. While there is still work to be done on the roll-out of networks, 2021 is one of the first years everyday smartphone users will have access to the benefits of this network. Up until now, 5G could only be experienced in dedicated areas, such as stadiums or trade shows, as marketing demonstrations for this new network. With phones in hand, and networks coming together–we should expect to see 5G-enabled AR experiences rolled out to a wider audience this year.
But 5G is not the only way that smartphones are becoming even more powerful augmented reality devices. New chips, higher resolution displays and displays that offer wider field of view such as those that are foldable (or even rollable), and regular improvements in both the front and rear facing camera have all made the smartphone even more ready for AR.
#5 Passthrough video AR makes its way to the consumer market as a living room device for social, gaming and next generation entertainment
We have seen mixed reality devices capable of both virtual reality and augmented reality using video passthrough technology for the enterprise but have yet to see one dedicated to the consumer market. 2021 may be the year this changes. This year we may see a video passthrough AR device introduced to the consumer market. This device will most likely not be a sleek all-day, every-day pair of glasses meant to be worn outside but rather a larger HMD similar to the VR devices today that is meant to be used indoors and may even require a smartphone, PC or a dedicated console as part of the overall system. As such, it will be marketed as a living room device for gaming, entertainment and social applications and possibly at-home productivity for work and school.
Beyond being more ready than optical see-through AR, video passthrough augmented reality offers a number of benefits such as a wider field of view, lower processing and resolution requirements due to foveated rendering, and much more control over pixels including the ability to display black. In addition, video passthrough is already in use with mobile AR and so a mixed reality AR/VR device can immediately tap into both the mobile AR and VR developer ecosystem.
That being said, the positioning of cameras, display resolution, and latency issues have been just a few of the barriers holding video passthrough AR back from wider adoption. We have seen significant improvements in all of these areas from devices aimed at the enterprise which suggest the technology is more ready but at what cost? Enterprise mixed reality devices on the market today have a high price tag and so the first generation consumer devices may also debut at a price which precludes it from being a major hit with the masses.
#6 Augmented reality becomes a battleground technology for automotive manufacturers starting with luxury vehicles
Luxury vehicles looking to differentiate themselves have turned to augmented reality to do so. AR systems which leverage onboard cameras and high resolution screens offer next generation navigation by overlaying directions and points of interest on the road in front of you. We have already seen a few vehicles hit the road with these types of systems, and we can expect to see AR become a standard feature in high end vehicles before this feature trickles down to the rest of the automotive market.
Integrated AR systems are not just a selling feature for car manufacturers but also key to getting their drivers to use their in-vehicle system over those owned by Google or Apple. As such, expect AR to be a battleground technology for car manufacturers as they roll-out proprietary solutions they have either developed or invested in that differ in user experience and feature sets.
For many, in-car systems may be the first time they experience augmented reality and as navigation is a killer app for AR which delivers clear value to the user, this powerful introduction is sure to play a role in AR’s adoption outside of the vehicle.
#7 Enterprise AR hardware continues to improve with new sensors aimed at a post-pandemic world
While the industry anticipates the debut of consumer AR smartglasses, these devices have already been hard at work at the enterprise for a number of years now, demonstrating very significant ROI in pilots and small batch deployments.
2021 will continue to see existing enterprise headworn AR devices improve and we may possibly see some new hardware players be introduced as well. Next generation devices will most likely get lighter and smaller, offer an increased field of view and higher resolution displays and cameras as well as an improved design better suited for wearability and use in a work environment.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon reference design will play a major role in these upgrades with its latest XR platform offering twice the CPU and GPU performance, four times more video bandwidth, six times higher resolution compared to its previous XR platform. It also includes four external cameras, two RGB cameras for MR experiences and two for head tracking, which can also be used to generate accurate depth maps, an additional camera for facial and lip tracking or a second monochrome camera for controller tracking and an IR emitter for hand tracking and head tracking with simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) to coexist.
One new feature that has been introduced to enterprise AR glasses due to COVID-19 is the integration of thermal imaging solutions in these devices to equip the enterprise, especially healthcare and frontline workers, with a means to monitor body temperatures from a distance.
Platforms, Tools & Infrastructure
#8 2021 is the Year of the QR code and the beginning of scanning everything with your phone and expecting a result
The QR code was invented in 1994 and since then it has had a rocky road to user adoption – at least in North America. Fueled by a need for touchless interactions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the QR code has come back in vogue and it is now being used to access menus, pay for items and more. Out of necessity, the QR code is no longer unfamiliar and a large population of new users have gained experience with their first QR code and are ready to scan more. This dramatically reduces the friction in employing QR codes as part of a digital solution, including using it for AR.
2021 will be the year of the QR code and you will see them everywhere from magazines to store windows, next to shows and album art on your fav streaming apps and more. The consistent use of these codes creates a new behavior with our smartphone and the world around us—one where we expect to get a digital result from scanning anything in the real world.
QR codes play a major role in AR. Today they facilitate discovery and access of augmented reality experiences by signaling a digital experience exists and can be activated. But the scanning action it asks of users is also grooming them of a new behavior they will need for the near future when the world is wholly enabled by augmented reality and can be scanned without the need for a code, setting solutions like Snap’s Scan and Google’s Lens up for great success.
#9 Big screens such as desktop, laptop and smart TVs emerge as a major opportunity for augmented reality driven by video conferencing
The pandemic significantly increased the regular use of video conferencing as we made video chats to feel connected with family and friends and to continue to do work. Most of these calls were performed on a laptop or desktop computer, a device category which surged in demand as our digital behavior shifted from on-the-go to at-home.
We started to see the use of augmented reality within video conferencing solutions in 2020 with filters, backgrounds, avatars and even digital first makeup. 2021 may take this even further with an AR ecosystem emerging around video conferencing and the webcam found on bigger screen devices such as laptops, notebooks, PCs and smart TVs.
While limited mainly to face and body effects, video conferencing platforms and desktop webcam accessible applications and websites will offer a new place to distribute and discover AR. These experiences will most likely have longer engagement times which will inspire new use cases for AR. We are already seeing how this is disrupting beauty by replacing the need to apply physical makeup for a call with a filter and there is a massive opportunity to be had to combine AR/CV and fitness with these screens, especially smart TVs. In addition, this consistent application of AR as part of our communication with others, may play a significant role in our adoption of avatars and the construction of our digital identity as we elect to take new shapes and forms while connecting with others online.
#10 AI + AR democratizes special effects, turning everyday content creators into film makers
From ground and sky segmentation to turning us into anime and cartoon characters, 2020 was a significant year when it came to showcasing how AI can take AR, especially social AR to new levels. And the fact that AR projects can be created using sophisticated machine learning really speaks to the sophistication and growth we have seen in both of these spaces.
AI + AR is a powerful combination and in 2021 we will see more developers make use of dedicated machine learning models to make their filters, lenses, video effects and AR experiences beyond social AR even more sophisticated. In turn, we will see content creators use these tools to create stories, videos and social posts which will be nothing short of feature film–AI + AR will democratize special effects.
AI + AR will unlock more bespoke and dynamic AR experiences, marking a new generation of filters, lenses and video effects meant to be used for longer than 15 seconds encouraging deeper and meaningful storytelling with AR. This delivers immediate value to content creators, influencers and social media users by giving them new tools for their posts beyond traditional photo and video editing.
Interestingly enough, watching the posts and videos created with these AI + AR tools will feel like a sneak peek of what it might be like to experience the world through AR glasses when we begin to wear them on the regular.
#11 The AR Cloud gets more real with dynamic maps enabling enhanced AR experiences with scene understanding
Originally coined in 2017 by my Super Ventures and AWE partner and AR pioneer, Ori Inbar, the AR Cloud represents, among other things, a spatial map of the world which makes AR more contextual, less lonely and always available and is an essential ingredient to take AR to the next level. The AR Cloud has much been talked about and in 2020 we started to see it move from hype to happening by many major players.
2021 will see the AR Cloud both continue to take shape and be utilized with maps built using crowdsourcing, especially making use of the new powerful devices in the hands of users, and experiences that use anchors and scene understanding for the AR to be persistent, occluded and respond to the real world.
#12 Volumetric capture surges with studios and LiDAR-enabled smartphones enabling 3D scanning for commercial and pro users
Volumetric video and 3D captures are a powerful new asset type in spatial computing which can be used across platforms including 3D on 2D screens and especially in AR and VR. With a growing number of professional volumetric video studios around the world and new smartphones equipped with LiDAR in the hands of many, we can expect an increase in volumetric content creation this year.
We saw an influx of volumetric video last year especially those that made use of web-based augmented reality experiences which featured celebrities and government officials and this was all achieved despite the challenge of working with new safety protocols made necessary due to the pandemic. With the pandemic end in sight, powerful proof points in the market and new solution providers and studios active in this space worldwide, we are sure to see more of this content hit our screens and HMDs.
While volumetric capture studios service higher end productions, LiDAR-enabled smartphones are equipping creators with the ability to capture people, places and things in 3D. While we are not yet at the point where the everyday user is creating 3D captures and volumetric video in the same way they do 2D photos and videos, these new devices and a brand new app ecosystem designed to help capture, edit, publish, share and even sell scans are are enabling a volumetric capture content creator ecosystem.
#13 Development platforms continue to find ways to make AR development more efficient and easy
Development platforms will continue to evolve this year with a distinct focus on empowering developers with tools that make AR development more efficient and give developers even further freedom and flexibility. In addition, we may see an emphasis on low and no code authoring solutions leveraging visual scripting, templates and WYSIWYG tools which are well suited for rapid prototyping and provide an easier way to create AR.
#14 AR becomes essential for brands and marketers as an at-home strategy drives marketing and advertising spend
The pandemic has shifted advertising and marketing spend to the homes of consumers, the only place they can reach them while the majority of us continue to shelter-in-place. This has created a need for an “at-home” strategy which AR is well-suited for. While an at-home strategy continues to be a necessity while the pandemic continues, it will most likely remain a major marketing pillar post-pandemic because of changing social norms, a greater emphasis on public health and because AR has demonstrated itself as an effective way for brands and marketers to connect with consumers wherever they are.
2021 will be the year when we see AR move from a nice-to-have to an essential tool for many brands and marketers. AR ad spend will be on the rise this year with line items dedicated to augmented reality rather than it being part of innovation budgets. But this means that AR needs to go beyond PR to solve real problems and achieve real results. Luckily, we are already seeing brands and marketers share case studies and data which suggest that AR is indeed proving ROI.
In particular, AR will become a staple in go-to-market plans for the release of new feature films, album and single releases and product launches, especially in technology and automotive and other industries which typically used trade shows and live events to make their debut. These AR product launches will make use of 3D replicas of products and will feature holograms of celebrities, spokespeople and influencers created using volumetric video, 2D video or avatar systems who will enter the homes of consumers to perform and sell a brand new product. Expect to see your favorite celebrities create their digital twin and become part of an AR experience to help them promote their latest product, single or film release.
AR product launches will present engaging and more personal opportunities with consumers than other mediums resulting in stronger relationships, higher dwell times and engagement leading to increased conversions. In a short period of time, consumers will come to expect an intimate AR experience as part of any new release.
#15 3D and AR portals make online destinations feel like physical destinations as brands, retailers and event organizers need a new space to engage users
Online destinations are becoming more like physical destinations thanks to the use of 3D/AR/VR. Online 3D environments which mimic brick and mortar stores, conference halls, stadiums and festival grounds are giving users a way to escape, shop and connect without having to leave their home. AR portals in particular are a great way to bring a destination to the user, teleporting them into a 360-environment and giving them degrees of freedom to walk around and explore.
In 2021, we will see 3D and AR portals from retailers, brands and event organizers who are currently unable to host their users in physical real world spaces. These online destinations will give users agency to explore and spend time with products and experiences. And as they are freed from physics or real estate limitations, they are able to provide an extraordinary experience not possible IRL. Retailers in particular will launch and maintain these destinations just like they would a new location of a store, updating them with new content, products and experiences aimed at attracting repeat visitors.
These branded mini-worlds will either live independently or be found integrated in existing virtual universes and apps and may play an important part in the shaping of the metaverse.
#16 Major websites add AR as a content format on their dot-com beginning a shift towards the spatial web
The web has become a powerful destination for augmented reality. Marketers and brands have turned to the web to engage users in AR campaigns and we will continue to see more ad spend on similar AR campaigns in 2021.
In addition to these powerful microsites, this year we will begin to see major websites update their dot-com as the destination for interactive AR content. AR content embedded on these webpages allow users to discover and engage with the AR experience without needing to go to a separate destination to do so, increasing dwell time and engagement for the main web destination. In this way, AR will start to become a powerful new content type added to websites, living beside existing 2D content types such as GIFs and videos.
The web is a critical part of our every day digital journey and when our favorite destinations start to use AR in the same way they do video and photos we will stumble upon this type of content which will be critical for the adoption of AR. Over time users will come to expect AR as part of their web content mix. In fact, I believe that within the next five years, having 3D/AR on your dot-com will be mandatory and so the websites which adopt AR and 3D today mark just the beginning of a major shift towards the spatial web.
#17 A virtual economy emerges with digital goods designed for you and your digital self
The purchase of digital goods is not a new phenomenon, especially in gaming and in pioneering virtual worlds such as Second Life, but we are starting to see the virtual economy escape these niches as it begins its fast ascent into the mainstream.
What is unique about the virtual economy is that it serves both the real you and your digital self, essentially doubling the opportunity to sell to you. And as there is no need to physically store these goods, consumption is limited only to your wallet and your cloud storage. A key technology behind the virtual economy is the blockchain through non-fungible tokens or NFTs. NFT, or non-fungible token, is a digital asset which contains distinguishing information on the blockchain which certifies its authenticity. NFTs create digital scarcity, digital ownership, facilitate trade and make it possible for the asset to interoperate across multiple platforms.
As the need to embody our digital identity as avatars becomes increasingly important across various virtual worlds and experiences, so too does the need to buy and sell virtual goods such as skins, clothing, and accessories for our digital self. Currently our avatar systems are unique to individual worlds, which means that our purchases are restricted to the worlds in which they were purchased but we are starting to see more open avatar systems emerge which have the potential to significantly widen the avatar goods opportunity.
The virtual economy also offers digital products for your real self to use. The art and collectibles space is quickly being transformed by a virtual economy with artists minting their digital art as NFTs and auctioning it off in the millions. Virtual-only makeup and fashion is being sold and worn using AR filters or applied in post-production for social posts. Whereas we have seen these types of digital assets be used in AR for virtual try-on, aimed at facilitating the purchase of a product in „real“ reality, here the digital asset is the product meant to be used by you in your augmented reality.
The intersection of NFT and augmented reality is one to watch, including the minting of lenses and filters and the use of NFTs and other digital goods purchased as part of the virtual economy in AR experiences.
#18 Gen Alpha becomes the last generation to watch live events on TV without augmentation as broadcast goes all in on AR
Live broadcast has embraced immersive video or what’s otherwise known as broadcast AR. One of the most memorable examples last year was the Verizon Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade where AR balloons were intermixed with real life ones. This is just one example from 2020 and is just the start of making live events even more memorable and magical through the use of AR. Expect to see this as a common occurrence in 2021 as concerts, award shows, sporting events and more use broadcast AR to create out of this world spectacles. In fact, it got me thinking that perhaps Gen Alpha (or those born between 2010-2024) may be the last generation to witness live events broadcasted on TV that have not been augmented as this becomes a standard in our TV watching experience.
But this is not the only way AR is disrupting TV, we may see AR-enabled shows debut on your favorite streaming apps bringing new meaning to “second screen” and giving viewers a new reason to watch their favorite show again. In addition, companion AR experiences may be made available to viewers by scanning QR codes displayed on screen further engaging viewers in the worlds, stories and characters of the show they just watched. Combining AR with TV can transform a storytelling experience into a storyliving one, augmenting a traditionally passive medium by giving viewers agency and tools to engage with content.
AR could become a battleground technology for streaming apps to help them stand out and compete in an ever expanding ecosystem and as broadcast TV and streaming video have massive reach, it is well positioned to help dramatically grow the adoption of AR.
#19 As remote work becomes the new normal, AR is the answer for meetings and collaboration
With employees working from home and many organizations committing to go-forward remote work, new solutions for this new working environment are required. As the traditional office model gets reimagined, AR will play a major role in its transformation.
Augmented reality is well situated to help teams feel like they are virtually in the same space. This can help employees feel more connected in meetings and provide a much more natural environment to brainstorm, share ideas and collaborate. Today’s AR meeting and collaboration solutions will need to be cross-platform to succeed, accessible on desktop, mobile and headworn solutions (both AR and VR).
This year we may see new players and existing meeting and collaboration providers offer solutions which meet the new demands of remote work and hear from organizations who are adopting these solutions as they share their learnings in the use of these new tools.
#20 The augmented reality industrial revolution is well underway as AR continues to demonstrate ROI in various industry verticals
AR has been hard at work in various industries including but not limited to manufacturing, supply chain and logistics, and healthcare. Much of the solutions in use by these industries are headworn, with smartglasses giving employees heads-up access to remote assistance, real-time instructions and collaboration tools. Many organizations have shared powerful data points which prove AR solutions are increasing productivity and efficiency, reducing operational and travel costs, keeping employees safe and even improving their overall job satisfaction.
2021 will continue to see more industries and organizations employ the use of AR to upskill their workforce with those that have been piloting and evaluating these technologies for some time now moving towards a larger roll-out. This will be accelerated by many factors including the pandemic, 5G and edge computing and advancements in enterprise hardware and software. We may also continue to hear success stories of AR in use which will continue to bolster confidence and inspire use of AR in the enterprise space.
Ethics & Human Impact
#21 Frameworks, regulations and social contracts which keep human rights at the center of AR and AI grow in need
Safety and trust are paramount for all tech solutions, but are especially key for AR and AI where computers sense and edit the world around us. As advancement of AR furthers and adoption of AR grows, the need for frameworks, regulations and social contracts which keep human rights at its center grows even stronger–especially as we move towards headworn wearables. Technology companies, governments, standards bodies and end users must evaluate technologies looking not just at its merits but also considering its human impact looking at it from a privacy, accessibility, diversity and sustainability viewpoint. The early decisions made by these parties today will shape the AR of tomorrow.