Augment My Town: Local’s Next Turf Battle

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One longstanding challenge in the worlds of local media and commerce is the famous online-offline gap. More consumer spending happens offline (even in a pandemic), but increasing levels of digital interaction influence those buying decisions. Sellers are left to connect the dots.

An emerging technology that could be primed to do just that is augmented reality. As you likely know, AR fuses the digital and physical. So, could it assist in the vexing and longstanding challenge of closing the online/offline gap? We’re starting to see signals that it might. 

Stepping back, one of AR’s battlegrounds will lie in augmenting the world in location-relevant ways. That could take the form of wayfinding with Google Live View or visual search with Google Lens. Point your phone (or future glasses) at places and objects to contextualize them.

As these examples indicate, Google will have a key stake in this “Internet of Places.” What’s driving it? If we follow the money, Google is motivated to future-proof and pave a path for its core business. That involves planning for several search inputs including voice and visual.

It’s well positioned for the latter given existing assets. For example, Google utilizes imagery from Street View as a visual database for object recognition so that AR devices can “localize.” That forms the basis for its storefront recognition in Google Lens and urban navigation in Live View.

Connecting the Dots on Google’s Visual Road Map

Big Tech’s AR Turf Battle 

But Google isn’t alone. Apple signals interest in location-relevant AR through its geo-anchors. These evoke AR’s location-based underpinnings by letting users plant and discover spatially anchored graphics. Apple’s continued efforts to map the world in 3D will be a key puzzle piece, too.

Facebook is similarly building “Live Maps.” As explained by Facebook Reality Labs’ chief scientist Michael Abrash, this involves building indexes (geometry) of the world and ontologies (entity-based content) out of it. Live Maps will be the data backbone for Facebook’s AR ambitions.

Snapchat, the reigning champion of consumer mobile AR, is also jumping in. Erstwhile propelled by selfie lenses, Snap’s larger AR ambitions will flip the focus to the rear-facing camera to augment the broader canvas of the physical world. This is the thinking behind its Local Lenses.

Speaking of consumer mobile AR champions, Niantic is a close second given the prevalence of Pokémon Go and the geographic augmentation that’s central to its game mechanics. And its bigger play — the Real World Platform — aims to offer robust geolocated AR as a service.

Beyond tech giants and mid-market players, there are compelling startups positioning themselves at the intersection of AR and geolocation. Most notably, Gowalla’s rebirth brings the company’s location-based social UX chops to a new world of geo-relevant AR.

AR Cloud: The Linchpin for Local AR

Local Layers

All of the above is aligned with a guiding principle for AR’s future, which we’ve examined in the past: the AR Cloud. As AR enthusiasts know, this is a conceptual framework in which invisible data layers coat the inhabitable earth to enable AR devices to trigger the right graphics (or audio content).

As background, AR devices must understand a scene before they can integrate AR graphics (as noted above in light of Google’s efforts). That happens through mapping the contours of a scene, or tapping into previously mapped data. The latter is where the AR cloud comes in.

There won’t just be one “AR cloud,” as its name suggests. These geo-located AR ambitions will compete. Much like the web today, the AR cloud will ideally have standards and protocols for interoperability, while allowing for proprietary content and networks.

But rather than websites, the AR cloud’s proprietary points of value will be in “layers.” The thought is that AR devices can reveal certain layers based on user intent and authentication. View the social layer for geo-relevant friend recommendations and the commerce layer to find products.

Achieving this will require several other moving parts. For example, 5G will help achieve millimeter-level precision for geolocated AR. But the payoff is to facilitate local commerce in more trackable and monetizable ways given spatial and temporal proximity to local transactions.

Put another way, when digital information is anchored to storefronts, products and menus, it can be more influential than the detached and remote digital marketing paradigms of today.  If this is correct, geolocated AR could help finally close that elusive online/offline gap.

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