The technology has been around for quite some time, but like so many other fringe smartphone features, augmented reality has yet to present itself as a must-have for consumers.
Subsequently, businesses have placed it on the back burner, alongside RFID, near-field communications, QR codes, and all the other mobile technologies that they've read about but have yet to see take off in the real world.
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Then came Google's most recent publicity campaign for Project Glass, the futuristic eyewear that projects digital content directly before the user's view of the real world, and augmented reality (AR) suddenly became a significant topic of discussion.
The bottom line is that several recent developments, and the potential of a few future prospects, make AR an important technology for businesses to watch.
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A couple of companies have already reaped the benefits. Trak Lord, public relations and marketing manager at augmented reality development company Metaio, points to a couple of already successful use cases, including Lego. The toymaker worked with Metaio to implement augmented reality technology in its retail stores to give shoppers a 3D view of what a Lego product will look like once it's assembled.
Considering that the value in Lego's products lies in the building process, customers appreciated the ability to see a better image of what they were constructing than was shown on the two-dimensional image on the box. Lord says Lego saw a 15% increase in sales after implementing the AR tool.
"Whether that's directly connected to the augmented reality box, of course, I can't say for certain, but you can't deny the fact that their investment in the better way to visualize in the point-of-sale experience certainly helped them as far as converting those visitors to their store into paying customers," he says.
The "big breakout year" for AR will be 2014, Lord says, pointing to a combination of smartphone penetration, competition among manufacturers, and continued development of AR apps customized for specific businesses.
Metaio hopes an increasingly competitive smartphone market, coupled with the rapid growth in the smartphone customer base, will drive many manufacturers to incorporate AR capabilities into their products. Indeed, the company announced at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona the release of the first-ever hardware for augmented reality, targeted at OEMs and handset manufacturers looking to add new features to their products.
"It's certainly competitive," Lord says. "From an objective point, I think a lot of the interest we have from OEMs is if you look at the market leader, Qualcomm, they also have an augmented reality middleware and they're marketing it pretty aggressively. So I think a lot of these people we've been working with, they see the work that Qualcomm is doing, and they also want to be in this space, they also want to have this competitive advantage. They don't want to be left out if this technology takes off."
If Metaio's bet on native AR in smartphones pays off, it could mean a new medium through which businesses can reach mass amounts of customers.