By Erik Murphy-Chutorian

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Augmented reality (AR) first made a splash with face filters and mobile game applications, which continue to delight users with their surrealism. As AR matures, it is introducing useful resources and tools. Whether it’s measuring the dimensions of a room or quickly locating the items you need in a store, AR will change the routines in our daily lives by adding layers of information accurately superimposed onto the real world.

AR can now come to us through the web and is poised to reach billions of users. By making AR content more readily accessible in the mobile browser, the app will soon be a thing of the past.

An irresistible market of nearly one billion AR-capable devices already exists, making Mobile AR the dominant platform for AR. Technology from companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Snap, Wikitude, Kudan, and 8th Wall has made it possible to create markerless mixed reality experiences on today’s smartphones through a set of computer vision technologies known as SLAM: Simultaneous Localization and Mapping.

Unlike geolocation which relies on GPS radio to figure out a phone’s position, visual SLAM relies on the phone’s camera to calculate its position in the world. To do so, it builds a three-dimensional map of the local environment. The benefit of this over GPS is four-fold: SLAM is much faster, much more precise, provides additional degrees of freedom including rotation, and it generates a 3D map of the environment that can be used to find surfaces and physical objects to anchor AR to a specific point, even an item on the shelf in a store.

SLAM enabled the proliferation of AR apps, but it can’t fix the app ecosystem. According to a recent report by comScore, the majority of US consumers download zero apps each month. Apps were required for Mobile AR until very recently, meaning that success required surmounting the app installation hurdles. Overall, this has hindered the growth of AR.

At my startup, 8th Wall, we set out to address this problem head-on. We had a SLAM engine that was painstakingly optimized for speed, and we asked the critical question: could it be re-architected to run in a standard web browser, removing the need for an app? Doing so meant that we could unlock all of the power of the internet for AR, allowing immersive content to be easily searchable and instantly available. This kicked off a long engineering sprint to adapt our technology for today’s mobile web browsers, and it resulted in 8th Wall Web, the world’s first SLAM engine built entirely on standards-compliant Javascript, WebGL, and WebAssembly. Launched in September 2018, 8th Wall Web now enables brands to build immersive AR experiences without the need for an app. In late 2018, our technology was used to bring Sony Picture’s Spider-Man character to life in a web-AR promotion for the movie, Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse.

Browser-based experiences do not discriminate against devices and they continue the user flow across various channels, which is especially critical to brands. When it comes to e-commerce, for instance, the logical sales funnel typically includes the following: A customer discovers a website or product through a search engine or social media, then views products in 2D or 3D, and finally proceeds to checkout. The customer might even switch from their smartphone to a desktop during this time. The AR content should not be separate from this experience, but rather it should support it. Requiring users to leave the store to install an app interrupts the user flow and contributes to drop off. When you’re selling products, every user who drops off translates to a loss in revenue.

Beyond sales, the immediacy of the web is critical to sharing timely information. For example, 3D editorial content must be timely in order to support a breaking news story. With the web, it can be updated and edited in real time, ensuring that the public has the most accurate and up-to-date information. The same applies to collective content including online encyclopedias, journals, and reports.

As AR on the web continues to evolve, we can expect it to become ubiquitous across mobile phones and smart glasses. There is already a web standards group that has emerged called the Immersive Web Working Group that is actively formulating future standards for AR and VR online. Within a few years, immersive content may be as commonplace as video on the web. By enabling people to instantly access, engage with, create and share 3D virtual content and experiences, we expect creativity and ingenuity to thrive in this new medium.

AR content is alive. It’s interactive, it’s responsive and it has a presence in the user’s real-world environment that is far too substantial for the static confines of an app. AR demands to be experienced in real time, and the immediacy of the web delivers on this.

AR/VR Consultant, Columnist, Author of the AR-enabled books “Metaverse, A Guide to VR & AR” (2018) & “Convergence” (2019).

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