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The Rise of Augmented Reality

One silver lining of the pandemic? It’s pushed us into a period of creative reconstruction. Stuck inside, industries and individuals have been forced to reinvent many of the ways we operate and interact. The virtual realm has virtually exploded with innovations that make it possible to shop, cook, exercise and keep in touch without ever leaving home. And augmented reality (AR) might soon move from the stuff of fiction to a daily-use feature. That’s thanks in part to new lightning-fast 5G networks that could enable advanced wireless services such as enhanced video streaming, cloud gaming and AR digital experiences. Here’s how that might look.

Where We Are with AR
AR was already popular in the pre-Covid world, with fashion brands such as The Gap investing in technology that let consumers virtually try on clothes, and beauty retailer Sephora premiering its Virtual Artist makeup app that helped customers sample and buy cosmetics. But when the pandemic called for fresh online experiences, companies stepped up. Snapchat partnered with Gucci to launch a shoppable AR feature that allows customers to model shoes and pull the trigger on a purchase directly from a “Shop Now” button. And Ford got in on the fun, using AR to give Instagram video tours of its new Mustang Mach-E electric vehicles. Now AR is poised to make another big leap, as 5G networks become more prevalent. This new technology has the ability to run up to 100 times faster than current 4G networks, thus potentially expanding the speed of AR features while supporting more elaborate virtual graphics. Such a shift could turn AR from a novelty marketing tool to a practical feature employed ubiquitously by brands and consumers.

TV Goes Virtual
HBO is among the first television networks to engage fans in the virtual world via an AR app, which was released in mid-November. “His Dark Materials: My Daemon” app offers a variety of wellness and fitness content inspired by the hit fantasy series, His Dark Materials, that premiered its second season on HBO and HBO Max on November 16. Every character in the show has an animal companion called a daemon, which is the physical manifestation of that person’s soul. When users open the app, they’re asked a series of personality questions to help identify their own daemon. In a Covid-inspired twist, each daemon encourages its user to take part in a daily fitness activity, like walking or running, or engage in some form of self-care, such as reading a book or video-calling a friend. Sensor Tower reports that April saw a 25 percent surge in English-language mental-wellness app downloads, making this function particularly timely. Apple plans to introduce its own AR capabilities next year, as an accompaniment to its TV Plus streaming service. Content could come in the form of characters or objects from a show, overlaid onto a viewer’s real-world environment via a head-mounted device.

AR on Social Channels
Alcohol company Diageo tapped into the zeitgeist in an arguably counterintuitive way, by using AR to encourage holiday consumption of water instead of spirits. Their “Balance Challenge” is a double entendre: drinkers are reminded about the importance of moderation, while using an Instagram AR filter to “balance” virtual water bottles on their bodies as they strike a series of on-screen poses. In addition to this campaign, the company announced a 10-year action plan that includes achieving net-zero carbon emissions and using 30 percent less water when making beverages. Such goals are likely to appeal to target Gen Z consumers, as 62 percent of this demographic prefer purchasing from sustainable brands, according to First Insight. The move into AR is also timely, since eMarketer predicts that the number of US consumers using AR on social media will jump 14 percent this year, up to 44 million, which is 13 percent of the general population. Luxury brands L’Oreal and Dior have recognized the power of this trend by introducing a line of virtual makeup and AR-marketed men’s sneakers on Instagram and Snapchat, respectively.

When the pandemic does wind down (hopefully soon), many reinventions from 2020 will be here to stay and virtual interactions seem like a sure bet. Thanks to speedy 5G networks, augmented reality could soon expand past the world of gaming into everyday advertising, mobile commerce, education and home planning. The future is looking bright.