There is a problem surrounding webAR that we have been dealing with for a while. Sure, we all want Augmented Reality that can be experienced on the fly without having to download an app. The most obvious vehicle for that is the browser, because pretty much every device – phone or tablet – already has one, or more. Once this happens, and make no mistake, it’s happening, we’ll have Augmented Reality everywhere, right?
The question is, where’s it going to come from? Someone still must create this stuff before you can view it. Enter a plethora of webAR development environments that let anyone create webAR experiences. But are they any good? Will webAR be as good as app-based AR?
What’s going on in the world of webAR development is in some ways an extension of what’s been going on with AR app development before it. Recent years have seen several new apps and tools that let you do enough to call it Augment Reality, even if it might be a pretty minimal implementation. Whether a programmer builds their app in a game engine like Unity or Unreal, or natively in XCode or Android Studio, they have access to an entire programming environment, including numerous third-party libraries and other resources to create any experience they can dream up.
Among the newcomers, often targeted at artists and not programmers, including Artivive, Slide AR, and others such as the engines supporting the last couple of books I have reviewed, there is less control – and that’s by design. The goal here is to get more content out there by putting A.R. tools into the hands of those with little advanced technical skills. In other words keep it simple. The simplest thing you can do is replace one image with another. By extension, replacing a video with an image is relatively easy, as is replacing a flat image with a layered image or animated .gif. Most of the tools marketed to non-programmers stop there.
The next logical step would be models, and then interactivity – but wait… I have often said that if 3D modeling was easy, there would be a 3D printer in every house. But it isn’t, so 3D printers have evolved slowly, because they’re stuck within the hobbyist community – those willing to find and/or learn to build their own models. These users are significantly more forgiving than the general public, so they put up with not only the difficulty of creating 3D models but the D.I.Y. aura surrounding the hardware, too. It’s the same with Augmented Reality. If everyone had easy access to 3D models, the state of the art in development tools would move in to support them.
And so it is with webAR, except that because of the anticipated market for browser-based Augmented Reality, and the desire to create your own, the number of players in the development tool space is rapidly expanding. Everyone wants a piece of the action. Any number of pay-to-play web-based development environments have arisen in response. Typically, you pay a subscription fee to use the development tools, another fee to have them host the content (and the code), addition fees to remove their logo, allow you to add custom code, etc. It adds up quickly.
Funny thing, most of these tools are built over the top of the same free webAR.js code library, which is much more capable than the tools we are getting from these providers. They are implementing a subset of the available code to provide that easy-to-use, no-programming-required experience – all for a fee. We used one of these (A.W.E.) on our first webAR project, and it worked fine, but our goal was limited – replacing target images with green-screen video. It did a pretty good job, but a lot of extra work was required to get the kind of interaction we wanted, and to integrate the interface that we designed with the technology that they provided, and we had to pay a fee to do it.
In order to create a compelling experience, most of our projects require even more interaction between the user and the A.R. and between the A.R. and the interface, applying the full complement of our programming abilities and breadth of our creative vision. We have therefore made the investment of time to build our own prototypes of target-based webAR experiences featuring image replacement, video, and fully developed models, without the use of any proprietary non-public tools, in a way that they can be hosted on our own or our clients’ servers. And given that we are creating the experiences ourselves, we don’t have to fight our way through an opaque layer of third-party indirection to get there.
We look forward to building your next in-browser Augmented Reality experience with the same robustness that we have been able to build into our apps, using our own powerful code on our end, but in a way that is much more accessible to your users. Give us a call.