How Big Is the Promise of Local AR (And When Can We Expect It)?

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The world has reined back its excitement over augmented reality (AR)… or at least its realistic timing to consumer ubiquity. It will be revolutionary — especially for local — but the fully realized vision (smart glasses) is more of a 2022 thing than a 2018 one. This has to do with size, cost and most of all, style.

But there are a few caveats to that sobering claim. First, AR glasses are already here for enterprise. In manufacturing there’s clearer ROI, such as boosted output and lowered costs through AR-guided assembly and maintenance. And the stylistic resistance to look like a cyborg goes away at work.

The second caveat is mobile. During the years it takes for AR glasses to come down in size, price and stylistic acceptance, it’s beginning to find a more receptive home in the smartphone. Not only do you already carry one, but it has all the ingredients for AR, such as optics, viewfinder and GPU.

Fueled further by mainstream interest and validation from things like Pokemon Go (not “true AR”), tech giants have begun to blitz mobile AR. That includes lots of activity over the past six months — starting with Facebook’s Camera Effects platform, and more recently Apple’s ARKit.

The latter will have the most impact on mobile AR, partly due to more dimensionally accurate AR graphics. But more importantly, it works with 380 million existing iPhones according to my calculations. And it will be even more capable with rumored depth-sensing optics in the iPhone 8.

In fact, ARkit’s biggest accomplishment will be to mainstream AR. Its true genius is democratizing advanced AR with a toolkit that automates the hard parts. Think of it like Photoshop for AR. This will ignite an explosion of developer creativity that rivals that of the app economy itself, ten years ago.

And we’re already seeing that happen through legions of demos and design concepts that showcase the breadth of capability. They span the gamut of practical to whimsical. For example, one of the most creative and fun examples so far is the AR-rendered homage to A-ha’s 80’s hit, “Take on Me.”

But what about local? What kinds of apps and use cases have we seen? How will those inspire other local apps that evolve and ideate rapidly? To get a glimpse of the activity so far — and inspire thinking on how it could apply to where you sit in the local commerce ecosystem — here are a few examples:

Visualize menu items.
Find items in a grocery store.
Configure your Tesla, place it in your driveway.
See if the new couch fits.
Navigate to the closest coffee shop.
House hunting.
Check out the newest Mercedes.
Measure your kitchen dimensions.
Just for fun: Dogs playing poker (dogmented reality)

More of these will develop quickly. But it’s important to note that these are mostly front-end design concepts. Real execution will require an extensive value chain. And that’s another place that local comes into the picture: location data. This local sub-sector just got a whole lot more valuable.

Specifically, location data will be a key element in displaying the right business or product information graphically. Some of that will involve object recognition (a la Google Lens) to “register” real world items and overlay graphics accordingly. But it will also need a fair amount of geo, product and business data.

That means anyone in the business of collecting, cleaning and optimizing local data — you know who you are — will have a valued place the AR ecosystem. It will be redemption for the years this sector has echoed the (correct) message that content is king, but data is God. It’s the “new oil” says the Economist.

The AR world, where I spend lots of time these days, doesn’t fully realize this yet but it will. After the honeymoon period of flashy ARkit demos recedes, a practical reality will wash over the sector. It could be analogous to the sparkly but malfunctioning introduction of Apple Maps. Let’s hope it’s not that bad.

Michael Boland is chief analyst of ARtillry and SF President of the VR/AR Association. He has been an analyst in the local space since 2005, covering mobile, social and emerging tech. 

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at