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A Year in AR: User Insights That Will Shape 2019

This is the first part of series reviewing the lessons we learned during a year building augmented reality apps and experiences. Read part two A Year in AR: Reducing the Cost of Failure or part three A Year in AR: Unifying a Fractured Ecosystem.

Listening to users changed how we see augmented reality

Most of what has been published to date about augmented reality (AR) is speculative fiction. Instead of learning how users relate to and think about AR, we are served device counts and screen resolution stats. Until very recently, it’s all been conjecture: use cases, market sizes, ROI–all of it has fallen short. For this reason, neither of the year-end-tropes (the “it’s finally taking off” call to arms or the “it’s an over-hyped disaster” harangue) captured what we at Torch learned in 2018, and neither will get close to what we expect to find in 2019.

For Torch, 2018 was notable not just for our accomplishments - we more than doubled the team,  developed our cloud platform and launched the first mobile AR design app - but also because we saw many of the fundamental assumptions with which we began the year melt away. Through hundreds of hours of user research and stakeholder interviews, we’ve learned how brands and designers think about AR, how they plan to incorporate augmented experiences into their 2019 roadmap (if at all), and how AR ranks with other business priorities (AI, Blockchain, etc.).

News that dominated the extended reality (XR) conversation in 2018 (device releases, startup bankruptcies, content partnerships) didn’t matter much to the companies who see AR as a strategic opportunity. Enterprise concerns are both more urgent and myopic; “What do I need to know about AR to move the needle for my business (so I won’t be left behind)?” and more patient and expansive; “What does this all mean for my company over the next three to five years?

Enterprises are convinced that augmented reality has the potential to be a huge opportunity (engaged consumers, increased productivity, new markets), fear missing the moment and falling behind, and are compelled to explore. At the same time, leaders we talked to are concerned with the risk of making sizable speculative engineering investments. 

The pursuit of solutions that resolve this tension, that allow for rapid yet cost-effective exploration of market opportunities, will be the defining characteristic of the AR sector in 2019. And as we will cover in some detail an upcoming post, this is where Torch will focus our resources and expertise.

Enterprise clients are spending to explore AR

Already in Q4 of 2018, enterprises were beginning to pay five, six, and even seven-figure sums for mixed reality experiences. In 2019, this trend will likely continue, unnecessarily. These early spends are speculative and small, relative to other enterprise IT or Marketing campaigns. Few companies are spending to build a “killer app.” Instead, companies and teams that see how AR presents either a market-shifting opportunity or an existential threat are making exploratory bets to try to uncover where user value and innate applications live.

Iteration will drive success in new categories

If companies are going to pay money to explore AR in 2019, they will only invest in the tools and services that make that exploration the most efficient. More low-cost testing and experimentation means a higher likelihood of finding the right mix of improved user experiences and jaw-dropping technology. Because of this pressure to iterate efficiently, companies that can assemble a tech stack that lets them iterate in a single place, and author to many outputs, will have a notable advantage.

Experience matters

Everyone laughs at job postings that require five years of experience working in technologies that are only two years old, but the truth is, companies want help building AR apps from companies that have experience building AR apps. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering that in order to test quickly, partners will need experience integrating with existing tech stacks, servicing enterprise clients, and navigating the seas of enterprise purchasing. If someone is going to spend six figures on a project, they want to know their partners can keep up and deliver the goods.

The AR software ecosystem will coalesce faster than you think

When it comes to content, authoring, deployment, and analytics, no one company provides a single solution, for now. But as 2019 kicks off, a few companies are poised to unify the XR stack, either unilaterally or through collaboration. APIs, integrations, and partnerships that drive user value to win business will define this market and our success metrics for 2019.

No one is talking about hiring game devs

We launched Torch assuming that people would prototype and design on our platform and then export to Unity or Unreal to build the final project. To our surprise, this has not been the case. For many reasons, companies want alternative production workflows to the game-heavy systems that have dominated 3D development to date. They want to use their existing expertise in mobile app development, and to the greatest extent possible, their existing tools and workflows–and these two worlds just don’t seem to mesh. Which leads to our next insight.

Distinctions between 2D and 3D design will collapse

As our technology and experiences are moving from 2D to 3D, designers will rapidly begin to transition into immersive media as their interests and opportunities expand. The emergence of tools like Torch and The Wild that make it easy for anyone to start designing in 3D; or it is the expense and scarcity of game devs, 2D designers and developers are going to move into spatial app creation in a big way in 2019, collapsing any distinction between the categories, as far as enterprise is concerned at least.

The companies making investments don’t care about most online debates.

People debate what we should call the sector–MR, XR, spatial, immersive. People say that AR won't take off until glasses with 6DOF controls are widely available. People say "VR is better" and they say "VR is worse." None of this matters. It never comes up in our conversations. Instead, companies talk about viable use cases, feasibility with existing tech, internal skills gaps, and implications for strategic and campaign planning. Companies are willing to invest in interim solutions and half-measures that, while not satisfying purists in any camp, get them in the game. No one wants to exit 2019 without at least understanding what spatial computing means to their business long term. And most want to start building up skills.

What's Next?

Up next in this series, I will take a look at some of the experiences and learnings that informed the assertions in this post. In the final installment, I will lay out Torch's vision for a platform that allows you to build a single 3D experience and publish it to any or all places immersive content is consumed.

If you want to read more about the immersive sector in 2019, we highly recommend Tom Emmerich's post, 19 for '19: Augmented Reality Trends & How They May Play Out This Year. Tom's a partner at Super Ventures and has a much broader perspective on the 3D ecosystem that we do at Torch.

And finally, if you are ready to move your company forward into 3D UIs, get in touch with us. There's no time like the present.