Designing for the challenges of AR

May 13, 2019

For years we have been hearing that augmented reality (AR) is the future. Whether it’s the future of social media, the future of advertising, the future of tourism, or the future of gaming, the general consensus seems to be that our digital experiences will all be augmented soon. We are excited by all of the possibilities but are still waiting to see many of them become a reality. Apart from a few examples, like PokemonGo or Snapchat, AR products haven’t yet broken the mainstream market. In a recent survey of over 1000 Londoners, we found that 84% do not use any AR products. It might be the future, but how long until we get there?

As part of a recent feasibility study, we tested augmented reality features within our own walking app, Go Jauntly. We prototyped and tested an AR experience that brought walking routes to life through animation and narrative. We tested with over 30 participants and found that many of the problems we encountered were in line with well reported industry challenges. When building AR experiences, especially those intended for use within a public environment, there are key issues that need to be considered in order for AR to achieve successful mainstream adoption.

Photo by David Grandmougin on Unsplash
Photo by David Grandmougin on Unsplash

Battery Bummer
This was one of the early problems with AR apps and it still holds up today. The demand of using the camera simultaneously with the processing power to produce the AR experience is a huge drain on battery life. PokemonGo has been receiving bad publicity about this since it was released. They have implemented battery saving modes to try to combat this, including one that switches off AR all together. This kind of defeats the purpose, right? Phone batteries are not quite at the point where they can easily withstand sustained AR usage. Hopefully they will be soon, but in the meantime maybe designing short AR moments within a larger digital experience is a solution.

Hardly Hearing
Some AR experiences are designed to be enjoyed in the quiet and comfort of your own home, eg. the Ikea Place app or Mondly. But many, are intended to be used while out in public, on the street, at a tourist landmark, or in a shop. One thing all these public spaces have in common is that they can often be loud. If audio is part of your AR experience, how can you ensure the user can hear it properly? Sure they could use headphones, but AR is often a shared experience between friends or family. In our own tests we found that most adult users immediately held the phone up to their ear in order to hear better, which meant the visual component of the AR wasn’t being viewed and was serving no purpose. If you are designing an AR product with audio, perhaps it should be given as an option to toggle on and off? The same information should always be shown in text on screen, or displayed visually in another creative way.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.

Awkward Actions
One day perhaps, when wearable eye tech becomes more advanced and widely adopted, we can just call up a helpful assistant in a corner of our glasses. Until then however, most users will be utilising their phone screens to experience AR and doing that involves holding your phone up in front of you. Holding your phone in this way is an inherently awkward way to be moving about in the world. If you hold it up for a brief moment to take a photo or scan a QR code, that’s one thing, but consistently holding it out as you watch an extended AR experience is another. Did you see the new Google AR navigation for example? Having to hold your phone up as you walk around? Sounds exhausting to me, not to mention dangerous. Again, if you are creating AR that is meant to be enjoyed in public spaces, you should consider the specific moments when a user will be interacting with the product and design accordingly.

Crappy coverage
Another common challenge to using AR in public is poor network connections or inaccurate location services. High quality AR experiences often require high bandwidth network connections, but those kinds of connection speeds aren’t always possible in crowded tourist sites or at historical landmarks where AR is frequently considered. In addition, many of the AR experiences can rely on location services or accurate direction detection to identify what to show the user at what point. If your phone thinks you are 20 meters to the left or facing the opposite way for example, it could lead to an unsatisfying AR experience. These problems need to be considered as well when designing an experience. Not every user will have a perfect 4G connection at all times. Could AR content be downloaded ahead of time so it can be used offline? Should the AR be activated by a QR code instead of relying on accurate location detection? How can we ensure the best possible experience for every user no matter their connection speed.

There isn’t one right answer or one easy solution to any of these issues, each one (and many more) need to be considered as part of the holistic user journey. The many potential applications of AR are exciting to consider and we at Furthermore will continue developing AR experiences. As we do, we plan to ensure designs are validated and user-needs are considered every step of the way.

This little insight was written by Shane Henderson, a Project Manager at Furthermore, immersive experience enthusiast and self-diagnosed iPhone addict.

Cover Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash

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