Augmented Reality: A Comprehensive History (Part 2) - Vertebrae

Augmented Reality: A Comprehensive History (Part 2)

Augmented reality history is a longer story than one might expect.  Magical AR glasses existed in novel form as early as 1901 and AR technology was conveying the weather long before global warming was a topic of conversation.  To read more about these early developments, check out Part 1 of this particular series, covering the history of augmented reality from the beginning.  Part 2, on the other hand, involves AR as most of us know it – social, mobile, making waves.  But what are the defining moments that got us to now?  Stay tuned. We’re about to find out.  

AR for the Masses

It’s official. We’ve made it to the advertising portion of this story. Augmented reality, compelling and interactive by nature, is an obvious fit for marketing.  But it wasn’t until 2008 that it was first incorporated into an advertising campaign. Very early adopter, BMW teamed up with Munich-based advertising agencies Buzzin Monkey and die agentour to create an AR campaign for the Mini Cabrio convertible. 

Consumers were encouraged to scan a magazine ad with their webcam to view a 3D model of the vehicle on their screens. It was specific to Internet Explorer/ActiveX browsers, but it did include AR tracking with the car model turning as the user rotated the ad. We’ve come a long way in the last 10 years, but this pioneering print campaign was the first to allow manipulation of a digital 3d model in real time. Critics recognized the early innovation and the campaign won multiple awards.

Just two years later in 2010, Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown met at Stanford University. The three began work on and then launched an app they called “Picaboo”. The name didn’t stick (due to a lawsuit), and in 2011 the group renamed their company Snapchat and adopted the Ghostface Chillah logo. Predicated on reality, in which moments are fleeting, Snapchat provided a place where users were more likely to be themselves. Despite privacy concerns, by the end of 2012, the app had over a million daily active users. The company continued to grow, along with their audience.  By 2015, Snapchat was a staple among social media platforms and a requirement among social teens. 

In 2016, Snapchat, all grown up, reintroduced itself as Snap, Inc.,“a camera company”, and filed for an IPO. As of February 2018, Snapchat reported 187mm daily active users with 1mm snaps created every day. While they are still proving their own concept with mixed reviews from critics, users, and brands, Snap has definitely earned its place in augmented reality history. Most of what we think of as mobile AR today is largely thanks to Snapchat. 

Upsets & Underdogs

As Snapchat was building out its in-app AR and camera technology, Google was looking for ways to offer similar capabilities hands-free. In 2011, a prototype was created resembling eyeglasses but with a heads-up display (HUD) in place of one of the lenses. These innovative glasses also weighed a whopping 8 lbs., a good indication more work was in order. Two years later, Google released Google Glass to roughly 8,000 interested users.  These users, dubbed “Glass Explorers”, expressed their interest in the product on Twitter via the hashtag #IfIhadGlass. By the time of their initial release, the glasses weighed less than .08lbs., or the weight of an average pair of sunglasses. Still, they received mixed reviews.  

From a functional perspective, Google Glass worked with various apps and software that project into a user’s field of vision, similar to Tom Caudell’s early design for Boeing. Although the healthcare, publishing, and manufacturing industries readily adopted the frames, they didn’t catch on as easily with the general public, mostly due to aesthetics and privacy concerns. In July 2017 Google released an Enterprise version of the glasses for US-based companies. According to a 2016 Forrester Research report, nearly 14.4mm US workers will wear smart glasses by 2025. No small feat, though we imagine Google is up to the challenge.  

While AR wearable technology had yet to make the splash many in the industry were expecting, a little game from Niantic was about to change everything. With the release of Pokémon Go in July 2016, augmented reality was hot hot hot. Geolocation and very basic AR added a new level of interactivity to mobile gaming.

Players were able to locate (via GPS), capture, train, and battle virtual Pokémon in their world. By the end of its first year on the market, the game had over 750 million users. By the end of 2017, it was the 9th top-grossing mobile game across platforms, and #1 on Android. This growth was despite multiple technical problems, including recurring server outages due to extreme usage, and primitive AR technology.

A social phenomena, news outlets at the time, reported on the dangers of playing Pokémon Go. Most of these were related to deep engagement, such as walking into oncoming traffic while capturing Pokémon. Engagement goals, ladies and gentlemen.


While the popularity of Pokémon Go has diminished, it most definitely paved the way for great expectations concerning AR. But in order for augmented reality to expand beyond gaming, additional software updates were needed. 

2017 was the year for major AR SDK and AR builder announcements. Apple released ARkit, followed by Google shortly after with ARcore. Both made in-app AR significantly more feasible for developers on iOS (kit) and Android (core). Up until this point, AR existed in AR apps. These SDKs allowed AR in essentially any camera-enabled app. Meanwhile, Facebook launched AR Studio and Snap, Inc. launched Lens Studio, both builder tools for users looking to create AR experiences for distribution on each platform, respectively. These advancements took AR from a specialized in-app experience to available just about anywhere, with the right technology, of course.

Beyond the confines of AR or VR, there are specialized devices geared toward MR, or Mixed Reality. Magic Leap, founded in 2010, came out of stealth mode in 2014 with the promise of such a device. The Magic Leap One uses proprietary technology to project interactive 3D imagery directly into a user’s retina. Dubbed “Google Glass on steroids” by Gizmodo, the device should be a game changer in the industry.

In late 2017, Magic Leap finally announced a release of its headset and software slated for 2018. Their Lumin SDK is already public, and now audiences await the hardware. Magic Leap has played a large part in augmented reality history to date based on its purported AR solutions. Most recently announced, Oscar-winning VFX studio, Framestore, has been working with Magic Leap as a content creator and strategic partner. If the famous Magic Leap marketing video (below) is any indication of what’s to come, we’re in for a treat.

Shameless Plug

Also in 2017, yours truly delivered the first AR ad experience served on the web, in partnership with Lionsgate. To promote the release of Jigsaw, the latest installment in the Saw series, Lionsgate looked to create something truly transformative. A sneak peak into the horror of the film, the AR lens was a digital version of Jigsaw’s deathtrap. It included a 3D laser collar animated to open and close on the user’s head. This campaign was incredibly successful and helped us cement our place in the very history we’re sharing.

So what does the future hold for AR? We’re only halfway into 2018 and there have already been major announcements from the likes of Google, Apple, Snap, and Facebook. Today, as we write this post, augmented reality history is being written. A far cry from the “Character Marker” described by L. Frank Baum, the opportunities in modern AR are still unfolding. The notion of being able to mix digital and real environments has gone from fantasy to everyday occurrence. But we’ve just barely scratched the surface. With wearables in the works, cameras and computers improving regularly and exponentially, and technologies like computer vision and machine learning creating complex programming opportunities, we can’t wait to see what comes next.

Now that you can recite the complete history of augmented reality, check out some of our favorite AR advertising campaigns. For some expert-level AR insights, try a deep-dive into the how to advertise in AR on mobile web.

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