The Mainstreaming of Augmented Reality: A Brief History, By Ana Javornik

The launch of Pokémon Go this summer was a huge success—both for the gaming industry and for Augmented Reality (AR). After launching in July 2016, the game hit its peak in August of almost 45 million users. Despite the fact that Niantic, the American software development company that developed Pokémon Go, has failed to maintain high levels of engagement on the game (its current user base is now 30 million users), the phenomenon demonstrated AR’s potential to be adopted by mainstream culture.

In a previous piece I discussed why some AR apps are destined to be forgotten as gimmicks, and what mistakes marketers should avoid when trying to deploy them. But it is just as important to ask: What has contributed to AR’s increasing success?

Aside from complex technological advances (e.g., mobile devices are now powerful enough to handle AR software and tracking systems), three other elements have enabled the mass adoption of AR apps: 1) meaningful content, 2) convincing and realistic interaction of the virtual with the physical environment, and 3) unique value that goes beyond what other technologies deliver.

Pokémon Go hits all of these targets, and it offers useful direction for designing future AR games. But it also has implications for areas outside of entertainment, such as marketing, fashion, tourism, and retail, where commercial AR apps have already been increasing in numbers and popularity. This growing presence of AR results from a long trajectory of development that has been full of hits and misses. Understanding this timeline is crucial, as it highlights the value that AR can offer in various contexts.

Phase 1: Attention-grabbing early efforts
The first AR technology was developed in 1968 at Harvard when computer scientist Ivan Sutherland (named the “father of computer graphics”) created an AR head-mounted display system. In the following decades, lab universities, companies, and national agencies further advanced AR for wearables and digital displays. These early systems superimposed virtual information on the physical environment (e.g., overlaying a terrain with geolocal information), and allowed simulations that were used for aviation, military and industrial purposes.

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