Although augmented reality has been around since the late 1990s, it took until 2016 for it to achieve mainstream success with the launch of Pokémon Go, a smartphone game that merges real-world location with overlay graphics that appear as if they are physically present when viewed through a smartphone camera. Pokémon Go was an instant game-changer, leading Goldman Sachs to predict that AR could become the next big computing platform, creating new markets and disrupting existing ones.
There are various acronyms to describe immersive media. While augmented reality (AR) simply adds a layer of digital elements to the real world, virtual reality (VR) is a fully-immersive, computer-generated digital environment or artificial world. Mixed reality (MR) is a more novel concept that occupies the middle ground between AR and VR, a kind of augmented version of augmented reality. Finally, extended reality (XR) is a catch-all term for the above technologies.
With PwC estimating that the enterprise and consumer market for XR applications is worth an estimated $100 billion, the tech giants are working hard to apply the cutting-edge technology in a variety of ways.
Immersive technology in the search landscape
From Google Glass to Microsoft HoloLens, both Google and Microsoft have been working on XR devices for nearly a decade. Initially created with hands-free working environments such as surgical interventions and industrial settings in mind, these wearable technologies have become more accessible to the general population over time as their design has been tweaked and they have been made more affordable. Meta is the other big tech player that is most invested into XR, having purchased VR headset manufacturer Oculus in 2012 for $2 billion as part of the company’s long-term focus on the metaverse and related technologies.
While the wearables market slowly takes off, AR technologies with lower barriers to adoption have swiftly become more widespread, including services such as Google Lens that work on existing smartphones. Given the sizeable investment made by the tech giants into immersive technologies, it is natural that they are looking to integrate them into their current products and services, including search engines.
Looking ahead, the most immediate application of AR in search is expected to be local SEO, which will enable users to scan a building or area using their smartphone camera and retrieve information about nearby businesses, as well as ratings, reviews and information about competitors. As this AR-enhanced search takes off, it will become more essential than ever for businesses to ensure their Google My Business and other local listing panels are kept up to date.
Social media platforms including Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram have also been leveraging AR applications for some time, but the impact on search listings returned for individual and corporate profiles has so far been modest. However, as businesses and consumers continue to adapt their social media presence to new applications and devices, it is likely that more weight will be placed on AR applications and profiles in future search engine algorithm updates: this is definitely a trend to watch.
How XR is shaping the metaverse
In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg predicted that “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people”. Since then, Facebook’s parent company has rebranded itself as Meta, in a nod to the concept of a metaverse.
Gartner describes the metaverse as a collective virtual open space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical and digital reality that is physically persistent and provides an enhanced immersive experience. It can also be thought of – perhaps too simplistically – as a three-dimensional version of the internet. The metaverse is being developed to include intrinsic elements such as digital currency and assets, a marketplace, NFTs, natural language processing applications, and a social media element to tie everything together.
AR technology is a key technological enabler for the success of the metaverse. VR headsets are currently too expensive and not portable enough to gain mainstream appeal, but AR technology can be embedded into smartphones, offering the ease of access that will be key to the widespread adoption of the metaverse.
Whether the metaverse succeeds remains to be seen, but the big tech players are betting on it and making great strides in developing the tools to build it. The XR industry is predicted to be worth $250 billion by 2028, and it looks like the technology is here to stay. For businesses and individuals looking to ensure their digital profile is accurate and appealing to consumers and investors, becoming familiar with AR technology and its use across both the internet and the metaverse is likely to become increasingly important in the months and years to come.