In 2016, the world was shaken by the release of Pokémon Go – an instant craze that thrust augmented reality into our everyday world. Although the idea of augmented reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) were not new, people suddenly realized that they could use their smartphones to easily access exciting new possibilities in AR.
Barriers preventing everyday use of AR and VR were blown away. Instead of needing specialized equipment like goggles, gloves, and controllers, everyone had the capability to use AR with something they already had in their pocket. Smartphones had already become a handheld window into a new world of possibilities, and augmented reality had become the latest of these.
Making AR accessible via smartphones has led to a rapid democratization of AR, driving a proliferation of new ideas, concepts, and content. This, in turn, is leading to wider practical applications and a growing user-base.
Today, we’re at an exciting phase of development in AR. While it’s not a mature technology yet, AR is becoming widely adopted thanks to AR apps, and people are exploring the possibilities of AR en masse. It’s hard not to draw a comparison to the early stages of the internet. In the 1990s, everyone started ‘logging on’ and ‘surfing the web,’ without really grasping the potential contained within this new frontier.
It is only now that the internet is becoming a mature technology; it critically supports almost every part of the economy and hard to imagine a modern world without it.
With this in mind, it’s easier to see the potential of augmented reality for the future, and that AR apps are starting to shape this future before our eyes.
How are people using AR apps today (and in the future)?
Without a doubt, the widespread adoption of AR apps is driving significant growth in augmented reality, and helping to define ways it can deliver economic value. While there will be an estimated 1.73 billion dedicated global users of AR devices in 2024, the number of smartphones in use in 2023 is 6.92 billion, and this will exceed 7 billion in 2024. This means that smartphone users are perfectly positioned to become the largest user group of AR, and will far surpass the number of users with dedicated AR and VR equipment.
Web-based AR (webAR) experiences do exist, but these aren’t the best match for many users, who prefer using an on-phone AR app. Web-based experiences have the challenge of latency, which can impact the user experience. As a result, on-device AR applications are still generally preferred.
Which AR apps are the best?
There are many kinds of AR apps for smartphones, including AR applications for Android and iPhone (iOS), as well as apps that are available for both. The vast majority of augmented reality apps are made for enjoying AR experiences, but there are also applications for building AR environments, creating 3D content, and rendering textures.
We’ll get to that later.
For now, let’s look at some different ways people use AR applications, and then see the 12 best AR apps people use today.
The excitement and novelty of new technologies is a huge part of what makes them popular and successful. Many people use AR apps for pure enjoyment, by watching a live performance from their favorite artist in their own living room, or just by having fun with filters.
- Immersive brand experiences (and gamified interactions)
Without a clear connection to making a purchase, people still love connecting with the brands they love. Gamified augmented reality experiences create a fertile union between entertainment and marketing.
- Educate and explore
Museums and educational institutions make learning more tangible for smartphone users with augmented reality apps that enable educational experiences. From understanding human anatomy, to seeing how a modern jet engine works – it’s all possible.
Consumers need to evaluate before they buy, and AR makes it easier to get to grips with the options. 3D content is becoming more common in ecommerce, and helps increase sales measurably.
- B2B sales
Modelled on the success of consumer shopping, B2B companies are also growing sales with immersive experiences. The use of AR demonstrates digital competency, and helps customers understand offers with supporting 3D content.
- Digital twins
The uses of digital twins are myriad. Making these portable and accessible with handy AR apps is further extending the relevance and application of digital twins.
- Social media
Social influencers are starting to realize the power of augmented reality for creating distinctive content with more depth. Either as augmented reality experiences, or ‘captured video’ that’s then shown on regular social channels.
12 best AR Apps for viewing and exploring augmented reality
Part of the search function in the Google app, and Google Photos, Google Lens enables near-instant translation of text from your camera. It’s possible to understand any language supported by Google Translate. Useful for your next trip to Japan or Wales.
Available on: Android
With more than 6 million global users, this is the world’s most popular AR app with the widest potential application. Combining first-class AR viewing capabilities with a global content repository, it offers a wide range of different AR experiences. This free AR app is becoming a thriving community for AR development and exploration, with a wide range of experiences, concepts, and content.
Available on: Android, iOS, (also Oculus Quest, SideQuest, and Hololens)
A handy app that lets iPhone users place IKEA items (virtually) in their own home or office, so they can see how it looks, and if it fits.
Available on: iOS
Modiface’s Makeup Virtual Try-on
The name is a bit of a mouthful, but this is a pretty cool app for trying out different cosmetics, to see how they look on your actual face. It covers every category of cosmetics, and has a swipe feature that lets you easily compare ‘before’ and ‘after.’
Available on: Android, iOS, Web, Windows, WeChat
An engaging game that became a worldwide craze in 2016. Users search the real world for virtual Pokémons and when they find them, they try to capture it with a well aimed ball-throw.
Available on: Android, iOS
This AR app helps solve that age-old question: what will the paint look like when it’s on the wall? Choose from over 1200 Dulux colors, and see how your home or office will be transformed with a fresh coat of paint. You aren’t committed to buying the paint from Dulux, so it’s useful just to see how colors will match (or not).
Available on: Android, iOS
Using cutting-edge foot recognition capabilities, this augmented reality app lets users see how various sneakers will look on their real-life feet. At least fourteen different brands available to try on in the comfort of your home or bus-shelter.
Available on: iOS, Web
Used for viewing augmented reality content that’s been created with the Vuforia Engine. This app has a specialist application for businesses that have already produced 3D content and want to share it.
Available on: – Android, iOS, Windows/Hololens
This is a popular social messaging app, which also happens to include some fun augmented reality features – namely filters. A perfect example of AR in entertainment.
Available on: Android, iOS, Web.
Another fun AR app for Android and iPhone that lets users create AR video content that can be saved and posted on the web, or shared as a link. A wide range of colorful GIFs can be scattered around and ‘interacted’ with. Reminiscent of the dancing baby GIF from 1996, but all grown up, with it’s own apartment.
Available on: Android, iOS
A great augmented reality app from online eyewear retailer Warby Parker. Using iPhone with iOS 15.0 and above, users can try-on numerous spectacles and sunglasses from the Warby Parker range. A great way to visualize different styles and how they match your face – without the pressure and hassle of going to the store.
Available on: iOS
Used by architects and architecture lovers, this app lets you import and view 3D designs in augmented reality. The mixed reality functionality lets you see potential buildings on-site. You can import any FBX file from applications like 3dsmax, maya, blender, sketchup, microstation, archicad, cinema4d, revit, and rhino.
Available on: iOS
What is better for AR apps – Android or iPhone?
Many AR apps are available for both Android and iOS – and this is a good thing. The democratization of augmented reality is driving rapid development in terms of capabilities and application.
Android users might be sick of hearing smug iPhone users boasting about their ‘superior’ phones, but this is one area where iPhones have a natural advantage.
High-end Android phones can display AR just as well, but the hardware makes a huge difference to the augmented reality experience – so it’s worth checking the specifications of your phone to avoid disappointment.
Augmented reality apps – both for Android smartphones and iPhones – rely on key hardware components to make them work, including GPS and motion sensors (accelerometer and gyroscope). More recent iPhones are also equipped with LiDAR, which helps the phone create spatial awareness and make precise measurements of depth and distance. This feature can also be used to create 3D models on your iPhone.
However, most smartphones today have the capability of exploring 3D content. Augmented reality apps for iPhone are based on the ARKit platform, which makes use of the uniform hardware and high-specification cameras and sensors on iPhones and iPads. ARkit is available on iOS 11.0 and up.
ARCore is the Android equivalent, but unlike Apple’s ‘total platform’ ARCore consists of versatile APIs that enable the phone to process sensor data and connect this with numerous augmented reality experiences. ARCore is included in Android devices running Android 7.0 and up. However, as Android phones come with a greater choice of hardware, it’s worth seeing if your device is capable of top-level AR. Google has provided an extensive list of Android phones suitable for AR.
Creating Augmented Reality experiences and apps
There are several apps that developers and designers can use to build complete AR experiences. For the most part, development apps are for professionals looking to build their own AR apps and create AR content. Many of these are software development kits (SDKs) for building customized AR apps, so 3D content often needs to be created separately using apps like Unity or Blender.
The Fectar Studio app comes with thousands of 3D assets, but also enables easy import from GLTF, OBJ, FBX, and 3DS (among others). You can then start creating your own AR experience and share it directly via the Fectar platform and its wide user-base using the free app.
An alternative approach is to create a custom app for your experience. Fectar also offers a ‘white label’ core app for this (which massively reduces the development time and cost), but some companies may prefer to go their own route with custom development. In this case, Vuforia Engine, Wikitude, DeepAR.ai and Adobe Aero are all alternatives worth looking at.
3D content creation apps for AR
To offer 3D content, you must create it. This is where 3D model software comes in. These range in complexity and capability from simple tools like SketchUp, to more complex applications like Autodesk Maya, 3DS Max, and Blender. Perhaps the most capable is Unity Engine, the app that was used to build Pokémon Go and RimWorld. This is used by 3D content designers to build games and more. Rendering your 3D models with texture is a whole other stage, and deserves a blog of its own.
As you can see, there are many choices to consider. If you want to discuss your situation and see how Fectar can help your business, get in touch.