How to make augmented reality apps that people will care about

There has never been a better time to learn how to build augmented reality experiences for smartphones. ARKit for iOS and ARCore for Android are now available for anyone to experiment with AR. They’re both quite accessible for beginners, and they’re updated frequently. Although smartphone-based AR isn’t as immersive as a head-mounted display, the real magic is that these new tools work with hardware that's already in millions of people's pockets.

AR interface inside Iron Man's helmet
We’ll get there one day. Image via I Like Interfaces.

Even though AR is really shiny right now, it’s still only a tool. It can give you superpowers, but it can just as easily make you frustrated and bored. Here’s a list of things that will help you make excellent AR experiences.

The power and limitations of AR

AR can visualize the impossible

The best AR experiences let people see something, do something, know something that they couldn’t before. AR is too costly to be spent on experiences that you can have without AR (don’t make a weather app). If you’re looking for inspiration, try AR Experiments and Made With ARKit.

AR requires a specific context

Consider that people will use your app in a wide variety of settings. AR experiences require good lighting, enough space to place virtual objects, and they don’t work on moving surfaces (like in a vehicle).

AR sessions should be short

After a long AR session, your phone will be very hot, have no battery, and your arm will ache. Nobody wants that. Keep the duration of the experience to under a minute to maximize “wow” and minimize “ow”.

AR experiences need to be play tested

Since you’re on the cutting edge, there are almost no established patterns, even for basic AR interactions. As you’re developing your app, try it out early and often. Many interactions that are intuitive on flat 2D interfaces don’t make sense at all in 3D space.

AR is amazing (sometimes)

There’s a lot of crazy and amazing things you can do with AR. However, when someone tries your AR app, they’re giving you a lot of their time, effort, and battery life. You can definitely make it worth their while, but be prepared to experiment a lot to figure out what works.