Analysis

How do you get people excited about augmented reality? Put it in a browser

Tech companies want to make summoning virtual objects and projecting them in physical spaces as convenient and accessible as playing a video or a song. Here's how.

It's easy to play a video or a song in your web browser; tech companies want to make AR that easy, too

Apple created a tablet app, shown here projecting a model of the company's new headquarters on a nearby table, to demonstrate the augmented reality features it announced last year. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Today you can use a smartphone to make objects appear out of thin air.

Sure, the objects are virtual. And you can only see them by looking at the world around you through your smartphone, wielding it like a lens. But these augmented reality (AR) experiences can feel magical when at their best.

The problem is that engaging with augmented reality today usually requires some intent: You must decide that, yes, it's time to do a little AR. There's just no serendipity.

AR mostly exists in apps that are purpose-built for the task. Want to see what a new table might look like in your living room? First download Ikea's AR app

These kinds of experiences come across as a little gimmicky, and not terribly convenient. So how do you get more people into AR without making them download yet another app?

Big tech companies are betting that one way to make such experiences easier and more accessible is by building the technology into your browser, so you can summon any manner of virtual objects directly from the web as easily as playing a video or song.

A prototype example of what it could be like to experience augmented reality in Google's Chrome browser. (Google)

A bike, a vase, a coffee cup

Google thinks there's "vast potential" for AR on the web, where it could be accessed from any number of browsers and devices of your choice — making the technology both more accessible and convenient to use. The company's developers imagine it could be used in "shopping, education, entertainment, and more."

A first glimpse at this evolution is in the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system iOS 12, released this week. It includes a feature in Apple's Safari web browser — called AR Quick Look — that lets users see how virtual objects embedded into websites would appear in a physical space. If you have an iPhone or iPad running iOS 12, Apple has a demo site you can visit in Safari to try it out.

In practice, it would mean that a store like Ikea could let you see how one of its products might look in your home by merely visiting the product's page on Ikea's website. (To be clear, it is not yet doing this.) 

Shopify, however, has already demonstrated how this would work. Right now, any of its 600,000 merchants can upload digital models to their stores. With AR Quick Look, shoppers could see a bike, a vase, a coffee cup — anything, really, that Shopify's merchants sell — rendered digitally in a physical space. (Assuming, of course, merchants play along.)

Getting everyone on board

So far, AR Quick Look is specific to Safari. But work on a wider industry standard is afoot. Engineers from Google, Mozilla, Samsung, Amazon and more have been developing technologies for both virtual reality and AR that would work across browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. 

The idea is to make it easy for website developers to include virtual models on their sites that can be opened no matter what browser you use — similar to how practically every browser supports the seamless playback of audio and video today.

And they're also forecasting a future when people don't just engage with AR experiences using their phones, but also through headsets, glasses and other types of hardware, with an eye toward making a single AR experience work across all of platforms at once.

Anyone with an iPhone or iPad running iOS 12 can try Apple's new AR Quick Look feature, which makes it easy to experience augmented reality in a web browser. (Matthew Braga/CBC News)

For now, the goal is much more modest. In June, Google released an education-focused demo of how AR on the web might work on Android devices, using an experimental version of Chrome. Mozilla recently did the same with an app for iOS. And, of course, there's Apple's AR Quick Look, which you can already use. 

It may be early days, but already the results feel less like a gimmick — something you have to go out of your way to experience — and more like a useful enhancement to the websites people already visit.

If summoning a 3D model of a new sneaker on a product page or an ancient sculpture on Wikipedia is just as easy as swiping through 2D photos — which is what tech companies are hoping — it's something more people will be likely to use.

About the Author

Matthew Braga

Senior Technology Reporter

Matthew Braga is the senior technology reporter for CBC News, where he covers stories about how data is collected, used, and shared. If you have a tip, you can contact this reporter securely using Signal or WhatsApp at +1 416 316 4872, or via email at matthew.braga@cbc.ca. For particularly sensitive messages or documents, consider using Secure Drop, an anonymous, confidential system for sharing encrypted information with CBC News.

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