By Paul Mealy

One of the biggest challenges that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) face today is the lack of consumer device availability. This is especially true for AR, where the best form factor experiences (glasses or headsets) are out of reach for all but the most dedicated early-adopter tech enthusiasts. Luckily, the rise of mobile AR has given way to a number of AR apps for mobile devices. These apps may not provide the optimal hardware form factor, but they can start to paint a picture for users about what sorts of problems AR will be able to solve.

Here, you take a look at ten (or so) AR apps you can experience today with little more than an iOS or Android device. Due to the mobile form factor, some of these apps may not be the idealized form factor for AR. However, the engineers at Apple and Google have done an incredible job of shoehorning AR into devices that were not originally built for AR experiences.

As you review these apps, imagine how these experiences could be delivered to you in the future: in high fidelity via a pair of unobtrusive AR glasses. Consider what benefits that change in form factor could offer, how it could improve these already interesting executions. That’s the promise of near-future AR.

Mobile AR is an amazing feat of engineering, and it has many intriguing use cases. However, AR’s ultimate form factor is likely an execution that feels less obtrusive and can be used hands-free. Keep this in mind when reviewing any mobile AR experiences. What may feel a bit awkward or strange to use today may only be a form factor upgraded version or two away from incredible.

Google Translate

Google Translate is a wonderful example of the power of AR. And not because it stretches AR to its visual technical limits — it doesn’t. Its visuals are simple, but its inner workings are technically complex.

Google Translate can translate signs, menus, and other text-based items in more than 30 different languages. Simply open the app and aim the device’s camera at the text you want to translate and — voilà! — you get an instant translation digitally placed on top of the original block of text.

This image shows a screenshot of Google Translate in use. A sign written in Spanish is seamlessly translated to English on the fly via the Google Translate app, which replaces the Spanish characters on the sign with a similar English font.

augmented reality Google Translate
A screenshot of a sign before and after translation in Google Translate.

Imagine traveling in a foreign country equipped with a pair of AR glasses powered by Google Translate. Signs and menus that previously were nothing but strings of unrecognizable characters become instantly readable in the language of your choice. The same Google Translate includes automatic audio translation, too. Imagine those same AR glasses paired with unobtrusive headphones (which, unsurprisingly, Google also manufactures) translating foreign language audio on the fly. Both the audio and visuals “augment” your current reality and make language barriers a thing of the past.

Google Translate is available for both iOS and Android devices.

Amazon AR View

One of the obvious questions that AR can help answer is: “How does this item look in real life?” A number of companies have attempted AR implementations of their physical catalogs, but it has generally been confined to larger items such as furniture. Furniture and other large pieces can be notoriously difficult to shop for online — picturing how these large items may look in your home can be tough.

Retail giant Amazon recently added an AR feature to its Amazon standard shopping app called AR View. Amazon’s AR View enables you to preview thousands of products in AR — not just larger furniture pieces, but toys, electronics, toasters, coffee makers, and more. Open the Amazon app, select AR View, navigate to the product you want to view, and place it in your space via AR. You can then walk around it in three dimensions, check out the sizing, and get an idea of the object’s look and feel within your living space.

The image below shows Amazon’s AR View in action, displaying a digital Amazon Echo Look via AR in a real environment.

Amazon Echo augmented reality
An Amazon Echo Look in AR.

Only a small subset of Amazon’s offerings are currently available in AR View, but that will likely change soon. The main drawback of Amazon being an online-only store has meant that customers can’t experience the physical products as they would at brick-and-mortar locations. AR might allow Amazon to help alleviate that issue. You can imagine Amazon requesting that a majority of its vendors’ catalogs be digitized in order for users to be able to experience their product listings digitally via AR.

Amazon AR View is available for iOS devices and is coming soon to Android.

Blippar

Blippar is a company with a lofty goal: to be the company that bridges the gap between the digital and physical world via AR. Blippar envisions a world where blipp becomes a part of our everyday lexicon in the same way you may use Google as a verb today: “Just Google it!”

To Blippar, a blipp (noun) is digital content added to an object in the real world. And to blipp (verb) means to unlock Blippar’s digital content via one of Blippar’s applications in order to recognize the object and display the content on your mobile, tablet, or wearable AR device.

Blippar is not just an AR execution — it’s a clever mix of many technologies. Blending many technologies such as AR, artificial intelligence, and computer vision, the Blippar application can recognize and provide information about millions of real-world objects and even people.

After you download the Blippar app and point your mobile phone at an item, such as your laptop, Blippar scans the device, recognizes the item, and offers information about it. For example, for a laptop, it may show you facts about laptop via Wikipedia, let you know where to buy laptops online, and point to YouTube videos of laptop reviews. If you aim your Blippar application at a famous person, such as the chancellor of Germany, Blippar tells you her name and offers up various bits of information and news about her.

Blippar also offers branded experiences. Companies that want to provide AR data about their products can work with Blippar to create their own branded AR executions. For example, Nestlé may request that whenever a user blipps an image of one of its candy bars, the Blippar app delivers an AR game to the user. Universal Pictures may request that whenever a user blipps any of its posters for Jurassic Park, a dinosaur pops out of the poster in AR and provides a trailer link for the movie. Or, as the image below shows, Heinz may request that any time a user blipps an image of its ketchup bottles, the app displays an AR recipe book.

Blippar augmented reality technology
Blippar recognizing and augmenting a Heinz Ketchup bottle.

Unlike many of the AR applications available today on mobile devices for consumer use, Blippar’s use of computer vision offers functionality beyond just placing a model in 3D space. Blippar’s ability to recognize objects and utilize AR alongside those objects may be a sign of where AR will end up next.

It remains to be seen whether one day we’ll be telling our coworkers, “Just blipp it,” but Blippar’s future looks bright.

Blippar is available for both iOS and Android devices.

AR City

AR maps are an application whose time has long been coming. The ability to project directional arrows leading to your destination onto your car’s windshield or a pair of wearable glasses has long been a goal.

Created by Blippar, AR City enables you to navigate and explore more than 300 cities worldwide using AR. As you travel to your destination, AR City visualizes your route on top of the real-world view via 3D overlays of your surroundings. In certain larger cities and metropolitan areas, enhanced map content provides further information about the places around you, including street names, building names, and other local points of interest. This image shows an example of AR City in use.

AR City app augmented reality
The AR City app augmenting directions into a user’s reality.

In a select few cities, Blippar further utilizes what it has termed its urban visual positioning (UVP) system. Blippar claims that UVP enables the company to get up to twice the accuracy of GPS, the current technology behind standard mobile phone mapping applications. Using UVP, Blippar claims it can get data so precise that it could begin placing virtual menus on walls in front of restaurants or interactive guides on famous monuments, with pinpoint accuracy.

As with the other items on this list, the ultimate form factor of AR navigation as shown in AR City is likely not within a mobile phone. A similar navigation system embedded in glasses or projected on your windshield may sound like something from the far future, but AR City proves that that future is fast approaching.

ARCity is available for iOS devices.

ARise

ARise is a departure from many of the AR game apps currently in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Unlike many games that feature AR as an add-on to the main gameplay mechanic, ARise is designed specifically to make use of AR features.

In ARise, your goal is simple: to guide your hero to his target. However, you’re provided with few controls for doing so. You never touch the screen or swipe to solve the puzzles. Line of sight and perspective are your only methods of navigating these virtual worlds.

This image shows ARise being projected into a user’s environment for gameplay.

ARise game augmented reality
The ARise game board projected onto a table.

The goal and gameplay are both relatively simple. What makes ARise a good example of AR for beginners is its requirements for users to get up and move around the game board in order to accomplish their goals. The levels within ARise are fairly large and complex. In order to correctly align your perspective to reach your goal, you’ll have to navigate around the digital holographic world by moving around in the real world.

By no means should every AR game require the same amount of physical interaction that an experience like ARise requires. There are plenty of instances where gamers would prefer to sit on their couches instead of having to constantly move around a digital hologram in physical space. However, for beginning users unfamiliar with what AR can do, a game such as ARise strikes the right balance between tech demo and full-blown gaming experience, serving as a basic introduction for what AR can do.

ARise is available for iOS devices.

Ingress and Pokémon Go

It would be difficult to make a list of AR applications you should try out and leave off two of the apps that launched interest in AR and location-based gaming.

The gameplay in Ingress is fairly simple. Users choose a team (“the Enlightened” or “the Resistance”) and try to capture portals, locations scattered throughout the globe at places of interest, such as public art, landmarks, parks, monuments, and so on. The user’s map within the game displays her location in the real world and the portals closest to her. In order to capture a portal, a user must be within a 40-meter radius of the portal, making Ingress a great game for getting users to walk around and explore within the real world.

Pokémon Go is cut from a similar cloth. The gameplay of Pokémon Go aligns with its slogan: “Gotta Catch ’Em All.” The user is cast as a Pokémon trainer and shown a digital representation of himself on a map, as well as the location of nearby Pokémon. As with Ingress, users playing Pokémon Go have to travel to a real-world location close enough to the Pokémon in order to capture it. When a user is within range of the Pokémon, the user can try to capture it by throwing Pokéballs at it in either a fully digital or AR environment. A trainer can use his captured Pokémon to battle rival teams at virtual gyms throughout the world.

Ingress and Pokémon Go were both very early entries into the AR space. And purists may argue that the lack of digital visual holograms interacting with the real world means neither is a true AR game. (Pokémon Go does allow you to try to catch a Pokémon as if it were visually in the “real” world, but with no interaction with the real-world environment.) However, AR can be more than just a visual display. AR can mean any method of digitally enhancing the real world. Both Ingress and Pokémon Go augment the real world with digital data and artifacts.

The debate over what is and isn’t “AR” may be best left for the terminology purists to decide. In the meantime, both games are worth exploring if for no other reason than to decide for yourself what you think makes an AR experience “augmented reality.”

Ingress and Pokémon Go are available on both iOS and Android devices.

MeasureKit and Measure

MeasureKit and Measure are two apps that can introduce users to the power of AR through simple utilities. MeasureKit is the iOS version, and Measure is a similar Android version. The concept of both applications is simple: Using the live video feed from the camera on your mobile device, you point at a spot in the real world. Target the spot you’d like to start measuring from and click to begin measuring. Then target a second spot and click to stop measuring. It’s not the flashiest use of AR, but the apps are a good example of utility AR applications for the real world.

With MeasureKit and Measure, you can measure length, width, height, and even volume of objects, all while building a virtual outline of the space your measurements take up in the real world. Plus, the types of measurements the apps can capture, such as volumetric measurements, are often much easier to capture and visualize within AR.

As with AR in general, both apps have some work to do before they’re ready for prime time. However, you can easily envision the utility these types of applications could provide for workers on a factory floor or contractors on construction sites, especially combined with the form factor of AR glasses. Virtual measurements could be shared among all workers on a construction site between each pair of AR glasses, displaying entire lists of virtual measurements overlaid on top of an unframed room, removing the possibility for errors or mixups during construction.

MeasureKit is available for iOS devices, and Measure is available for Android devices.

InkHunter

InkHunter is an application enabling you to try on virtual tattoos via AR before they’re inked onto your skin for eternity. Simply download the app, draw a marker for where you would like the tattoo to appear, and select a tattoo you’d like to see visualized virtually on your skin. The inner workings of the app will detect the marker and keep the tattoo mapped onto your body, even as you move around in space, allowing you to “try on” and evaluate any number of tattoos, even tattoos made up of your own photos.

The ultimate goal of most AR applications is to function marker-less — that is, with no fixed reference point in the real world. In the case of InkHunter, however, although it can use AR and computer vision to detect surfaces around you, it would have no way of knowing what surface to apply the tattoo onto. The marker serves as a way to allow InkHunter to determine the surface and direction on which to overlay the tattoo.

InkHunter is available for both iOS and Android devices.

Sketch AR

Sketch AR enables users to virtually project images onto a surface, and then trace over the virtual images with real-world drawings. It’s similar to illustrators’ use of light boxes or projectors to transfer artwork onto various surfaces.

Choose a drawing surface, bring up the various sketches available to trace, select the image to trace, and then hold the camera in front of your drawing surface. The image will now appear mapped to your piece of paper, so you can trace over the lines to create your image. Although its utility for practicing sketching on a piece of paper with your mobile device is limited, a more intriguing use case is the use of Sketch AR within the Microsoft HoloLens, which enables users to transfer small sketches onto much larger murals.

Like many current mobile AR-powered applications, the ultimate form factor of Sketch AR is not your mobile device. When illustrating, you want your hands as free to move as possible. With one hand busy trying to hold your device steady at all times, the experience isn’t a perfect one. Seeing that the app has been built for not only mobile devices but HoloLens as well is heartening. more AR headsets and glasses are released at a consumer level, companies will hopefully follow suit in bringing their mobile AR experiences to these various wearable AR form factors.

Sketch AR is available for iOS and Android devices, as well as Microsoft HoloLens.

It has been speculated that Apple’s reasoning for releasing ARKit to mobile devices now was to provide a glimpse of the future while allowing developers to access the sort of application program interface (API) that will be available to them if Apple’s long-rumored AR glasses come to fruition.

Find Your Car and Car Finder AR

AR car finder applications are available today, and they work well, but similar technology has broader implications for future applications. Both Find Your Car (for iOS) and Car Finder AR (for Android) are simple applications that work in similar ways. Park your car (or whatever you want to find a way back to), drop a pin, and then when you’re returning to your car, a compass arrow will guide you back, providing distance and direction to where you left it.

Being able to drop a pin and be guided back to your misplaced vehicle via overlaid directions solves a problem many people struggle with, but apps to locate your car via a dropped pin have existed in some form or another for a while. Certainly AR improves the experience, but what if it went even further?

A proof-of-concept app, Neon, is looking to do just that. Billing itself as the “world’s first social augmented reality platform,” Neon allows users to leave 3D AR holographic messages in the real world for friends to view, which they can find by following Neon’s mapping system. Plus, Neon plans to enable you to locate friends who also have the Neon app in a crowded stadium, festival, or anywhere that might necessitate the usage of the app. (Neon is not yet released to any app stores.)

With a pair of AR glasses, parents could track their children at crowded playgrounds down to the direction and distance they are apart. You could be alerted that a friend or acquaintance in your social network is nearby. Or simply never forget a name or face again — your AR glasses could recognize a user via computer vision and serve up his profile information to you via AR directly to your glasses.

Find Your Car is available on iOS devices. Car Finder AR is available on Android devices. Neon is currently in beta.