Why AR is a better investment for brands than VR

Companies large and small are increasingly exploring and experimenting with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

Both are emerging technologies with numerous possibilities for creative marketing and advertising; but which is the better investment for brands?

While VR’s potential is no doubt significant, AR is arguably the much better investment here and now. Here are the biggest reasons why.

AR technology is here and accessible

While there are a number of virtual reality headsets on the market today, such as the Oculus Rift, the reality is that for VR to become a truly mainstream phenomenon, far more consumers will need to purchase VR headsets than already have done. And not just for gaming.

Virtual reality headset sales are nowhere near where they need to be to have a truly mass market, and there are impediments to adoption, such as motion sickness, that will need to be addressed before mainstream adoption can be achieved.

AR, on the other hand, doesn’t require mass consumer acceptance of a new category of hardware. That’s because many, if not most, AR apps are being built for devices of which there are billions: smartphones.

In fact, while social networking giant Facebook is investing heavily in VR – it owns Oculus, which it purchased for more than $2 billion in 2014 – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes AR is going to be even bigger than VR. At Facebook’s F8 developer conference this year, declared, “we’re going to make the camera the first mainstream AR platform” when he announced the company’s new Camera Effects AR platform.

Image: Facebook

Consumers by the millions are already using AR

While Zuckerberg’s vision for augmented reality, which starts with but doesn’t end at the smartphone, might be a decade or more away from being fully realized, AR is already being used by millions upon millions of consumers on smartphones, providing some guarantee that there’s a future for AR even if newfangled AR-centric devices never materialize.

Apps like Pokémon Go and Snapchat, for instance, have introduced millions of people to augmented reality and demonstrated that AR-centric applications can become big hits. That’s why Facebook is adding AR features to Instagram.

Augmented reality, however, is not limited to gaming and entertainment apps. There are AR apps that help users map the constellations in the night, provide in-store product information, and visualize what nail polish and tattoos would look like on them.

Most importantly, AR doesn’t need to be the star of the show. AR features have worked their way into popular apps that aren’t AR-focused. For instance, Yelp’s mobile app has Yelp Monocle, which allows users to find nearby businesses through an augmented reality experience. And the Google Translate app has an AR feature that allows users to visually translate signs in other languages.

The most powerful tech companies are betting big on AR

As noted, Facebook is investing heavily in AR but not surprisingly, it’s not the only tech behemoth doing so.

Google is behind Project Tango, a development platform that uses computer vision instead of GPS to facilitate the creation of augmented reality experiences on smartphone and tablet devices. Thus far, two commercial smartphones manufactured by Lenovo and ASUS have Tango technology built in, and brands have experimented with Tango-powered features. For instance, earlier this year BMW piloted an AR product visualizer:

Not to be outdone, Apple, which is in perhaps the best position to facilitate the adoption of AR technology more widely on smartphones, is aiming to turn iOS into “the largest AR platform in the world” with ARkit, a developer tool set for AR that Apple unveiled at its Worldwide Developers Conference earlier this month.

Consumers still aren’t convinced of the value proposition for VR

Virtual reality might be more intriguing to businesses today than it is to consumers.

For example, VR has been hyped as a potential game-changing technology for the travel industry. Tour operators and hotels could use VR technology to market themselves and some even suggest that one day, VR could allow consumers to take virtual trips instead of physical ones.

But while one study conducted last year indicated travel applications interested consumers more than any other kind of VR application, a new study has also found that 81% of adults don’t believe VR is capable of replacing travel, while 92% stated that they would not consider a virtual visit to a destination to be equivalent to a physical visit.

Obviously, this data doesn’t necessarily dent the potential for virtual reality to be used for marketing purposes, but if VR doesn’t develop compelling uses beyond gaming, it’s going to be hard to drive the type of mass adoption that will support the marketing use cases.

At the same time, AR is already being employed. For instance, popular tourist destinations, like museums, are using AR to give their guests new ways to experience exhibits.

The investment case for AR is easier to make

Producing good VR apps and content currently isn’t cheap. Obviously, the costs should decrease over time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that producing quality, effective VR apps and content will ever be cheap. And because the distribution platforms for virtual reality are still nascent and unproven, companies investing in VR today have no guarantee that their efforts will reach consumers.

High costs combined with limited distribution options makes the VR investment case a tougher sell.

While creating a good AR app or adding AR features to an existing app is not necessarily a trivial or cheap undertaking, it is usually less costly. Additionally, because there are established and proven mobile app distribution channels, companies investing in AR today don’t have to worry about how they’re going to get their AR-enabled apps into the hands of consumers.

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