New technologies like AR (augmented reality) are exciting for developers, businesses and users. But in the early stages of technological development, the mainstream benefits are not always apparent and uptake among the general population is often slow. It’s not until apps like Pokémon Go gain global recognition, that people sit up and take notice.
However, not every technology is right for every project, and context is key when establishing if AR is the right strategic fit for our clients. Augmented reality can play many roles in an engaging experience, and that’s likely to continue to grow in the future, but it’s not the solution to creating an engaging experience in and of itself.
So what are our key considerations when using AR, and how do we attack the technical challenges it presents?
Exploring the unexplorable
In placemaking projects, we currently use AR for two key purposes: revealing sites that are no longer there, and revealing sites that are not yet there.
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In our R&D digital placemaking project at Porth Teigr, we’re exploring ways to allow visitors to do both. Porth Teigr is a waterfront site in Cardiff, being redeveloped to include creative, commercial, residential and leisure spaces. The project proposes possible ways that technology could enhance physical spaces for the public using them, and one idea uses a pair of augmented binoculars, inviting visitors to look ahead to the future, at what the site will look like when it’s finished; then in the next breath, to peer back through history to see what was once there.
In a project like this, augmented reality allows us to create a flexible experience, connecting people with place and time in new ways. In the past, we’ve done this using images, video and sound , and AR adds another immersive – and emotive – layer to our storytelling toolkit.
In practice: Where to start with AR
The starting point with any AR-based app is to ask the questions: “What is the story you’re trying to tell?”, and “What’s the benefit to your organisation?”
All solutions need a clearly defined purpose; content, context and experience are everything. Our approach is to talk with clients to understand their stories, ascertain whether it would be best retold using AR, and how.
Museums in particular are familiar with using audio tours to guide visitors through a space: the challenge now, is to think about how these stories can be enhanced through the compelling use of AR – something which will become far easier for heritage organisations to provide in the future.
An augmented future
As AR becomes familiar to users, and as more robust platforms become available for developers, these experiences will become part of the innovative storytelling landscape. Seeing the technology in action in a wider range of settings will stoke the imagination of heritage sites, businesses and developers, resulting in a cross-pollination of ideas to create maximum impact.
A delightful example of extending storytelling through AR is the Forestry Commission’s Gruffalo Spotter app. Searching for famous characters from the popular children’s book, visiting families follow clues as they move through the forest. At points throughout their trail, they discover 3D versions of the characters who interact and play with the forest around them – even posing for photos with the whole family! This illustrates how AR can transform a simple day out into a magical adventure.
AR has been around for a while, and now, improvements in hardware and better support for developers are making it a more feasible investment for businesses.
We’re expecting the upcoming launch of iOS 11 to be a defining moment in the AR journey, giving developers a chance to focus on the creative aspects, as the underlying technical complexities become standardised.
One new capability of iOS 11 is to anchor digital objects amongst physical spaces. It could recognise an object placed in the middle of a room without any kind of marker, allowing visitors to walk right around it and keep track of its position. Previously, we’ve relied on physical markers to anchor the technology and create a seamless experience, which allows users to inhabit both the physical and digital worlds simultaneously.
We’re also excited about the possibility of alternative delivery methods for these experiences. While Google Glass wasn’t embraced by the consumer, they helped pave the way for wearables in the marketplace. Some of the concerns at the time were around the ethics and morals of such technology. For instance, “what were the glasses recording?”, “where was that information being stored?”, and “how was that information being used?”
Maybe, in a few years when people are more comfortable with the idea and the ethical questions have been debated more publicly, the Smart Glasses market could well be ripe for growth. However, because museums and other heritage sites are trusted social spaces with a history of embracing new technology to support interpretation, they are prime spaces for experimental AR delivery, such as smart wearables.
With a bold, creative vision, AR is an extremely exciting storytelling tool, offering organisations and audiences fresh ways to understand their world.