AR is everywhere. However, many experiences require specific hardware which can be costly and not widely accessible for audiences. WebAR services, social platforms and open frameworks offer a lower barrier to entry and a greater reach for content creators – but what are the creative possibilities?

Quite simply, if you’re building an AR experience and want to reach the largest possible audience, WebAR is the answer. There are around 3 billion compatible WebAR devices, that figure dwarfs the current native market where Apple’s ARKit is estimated to have 1.2 billion compatible devices, and Google’s ARCore around 600 million. 

Unlike app-based AR, which uses native (on-device) ARKit & ARCore features, the WebAR landscape is fragmented across a range of different platforms, services, and custom libraries, all with their unique capabilities and constraints. 

When navigating these affordances for clients, we break down the WebAR landscape into three main categories: social platforms, paid-for services, and open frameworks. There is also a hybrid option, but more on that later.

Paid for Services

Paid for services offer the lowest threshold of entry into the WebAR market via mobile web browser. Platforms such as 8th Wall & ZapWorks are leaders in the space, and as a customer, you are paying for the reach and stability their service offers. However, unlike social platforms and native tools, the AR functionality is limited by the current technology, and you tend to find that their use is limited to simple AR experiences, such as product activations.

Many of the paid-for services are built on top of open frameworks (see below) and you are paying for the platform provider’s investment in custom development to achieve a stable and robust implementation.

Tinie Tempah / Burger King AR concert powered by 8th Wall.

Open Frameworks

Open frameworks are WebAR’s wild west. In terms of options, this space is a concoction of custom javascript, machine learning, and web libraries, such as AR.js, Three.js, A-Frame etc. Always experimenting and evolving, the open frameworks are a source of inspiration. Some examples we love are Google’s MediaPipe for the Web and JsDection’s impressive hand recognition, truly showing off the potential of WebAR.

Unfortunately, the most progressive and exciting examples in this space offer little to no scalability and are always targeting specific browsers, making universal engagement challenging.

Social Platforms

Whilst not really WebAR, social platforms provide a simplest way for their audiences to experience AR. In terms of XR, there are two major players in this space; Facebook and Snap. 

Facebook’s AR authoring tool is Spark. Currently, it doesn’t use native features but brings a richer feature set than other paid for WebAR solutions. It also goes beyond Facebook, supporting Instagram and other web platforms. Spark encourages creators to make use of front-facing cameras to create AR experiences in line with more traditional social media engagement. This recent collaboration between Verizon & The Smithsonian showcases how Spark AR can engage followers in more enhanced experiences within an existing channel.  

However, in the battle of social giants, Snap would be crowned as the leader of AR. Lens Studio, Snap’s AR creator tool, publishes experiences within an app and makes full use of native features. It also supports amazing machine learning which drives social AR experiences offering extended capabilities such as face morphing, location-based content, and mini-game experiences (check out this Disney-style cartoon filter and Landmarkers). Snap also has exciting developments in the pipeline such as shared location-based experiences (as shown here) providing greater opportunity for social storytelling and shared play.

The Landmarkers AR lense on Snapchat transforms iconic locations around the world.

It’s also worth mentioning social media platform TikTok is beginning to gain traction within this space and recently made its debut of the first-ever LiDAR camera-enabled filter. This demo shows how LiDAR can drastically improve the quality of the experience and create fun effects such as confetti that realistically interacts with you and surfaces in your living room.

Unfortunately due to the age requirement for many of the social networks, these platforms are not a suitable option for anyone designing AR experiences for children.

Native hybrids

Native hybrids are not actually classed as WebAR, but it’s an interesting and emerging space that offers a middle-ground for content creators. Both Apple and Google are exposing native AR functionality through their web browsers, allowing websites to launch content directly into a native viewer, bringing all the premium AR features native offers. 

Even though you aren’t experiencing the content directly through the browser, there is no need to download an app, and this therefore heavily reduces the barrier to entry for an AR experience. This approach was made popular by Google Search AR animals, but Apple has been doing the same under the radar.

Google Search uses a combination of web and native AR technologies.

Final Thoughts

When looking at WebAR, as a business it’s important not only to understand its capabilities from an experiential perspective but also the pipelines and workflow required to build and scale experiences. Although WebAR offers greater reach capabilities, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to create experiences for.

While open systems are inherently more flexible, they are also more experimental, and often not suitable for mainstream engagement. Social platforms have made creation quick and easy, but they are closed ecosystems for existing audiences. Paid services are robust, but can lag behind in terms of feature sets. Native-integration from web capitalises on a limited set of native features, but requires dual solutions created for Apple and Google devices.

In summary, when picking the right platform for your WebAR experience, the choice comes down to what is more important for your audience needs: reach or depth of experience? 

Head over to our 2020 Guide to AR to learn more about other platforms. 

Header image @ Google Search AR / Next Reality

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James is Creative Technology Director at PRELOADED. He is passionate about building inclusive experiences that bring people together, and which educate and entertain.