WebAR: All you need to know about the next big thing

(Image credit: Nintendo)

WebAR is on the rise, thanks to the biggest obstacle facing app-based AR. You see, since augmented reality (AR) became a big thing, the best experiences have been app-based. Think Pokémon GO, or any of those handy AR features that have been added to brand apps, from ASOS to IKEA. 

But while this type of AR offers advanced technical capabilities, trying to get people to download an app can be tricky, and it can be harder to make an app that's compatible with all the different types of phone and operating systems out there. That's why people have started looking seriously into WebAR; it may not have the power of full AR but it still has plenty of potential for experimental design that can enthral your users (check out the Google AR tool or this cut and paste tool for a couple of fun examples). Here's what you need to know about it.

What is WebAR?

WebAR refers to augmented reality experiences that are accessed through a web browser rather than an app. This means all you need is your smartphone or tablet and an internet connection, without having to download an app directly onto your phone. 

At the moment WebAR offers a limited selection of the main features possible using app AR, including simple animations, video and a certain degree of interactivity. WebAR can also support image target detection to trigger experiences.

How do you build it? 

A-Frame screenshot: webAR

Build 3D/VR/AR experiences with A-Frame (Image credit: A-Frame)

Because this is a web application, there are platforms that support the creation of WebAR that are similar to normal web development platforms. We've been using A-Frame, which enables the creation of 3D assets and environments using a web framework that looks similar to HTML. A-Frame and other applications are supported by 8th Wall, which is currently the leading SLAM tracking SDK for WebAR on the market.

What are the benefits?

Google AR

WebAR projects such as this Google Easter egg are much more accessible than AR apps (click the image to find out more) (Image credit: Future)

As already mentioned, the overwhelming benefit to WebAR is the fact you don't have to download an app directly to your device. With an app, the size, data allowance for download and device type etc can all prove a bar to getting people to use AR, but WebAR makes it more immediately accessible and doesn't eat up people's data through chunky downloads – in turn helping AR campaigns and experiences to be more relevant and useful. 

What's more, WebAR can run to a certain extent on most browsers – so you don't necessarily have to have a certain specification of device in order to support AR, again increasing the reach of a particular experience. 

What are the limitations? 

It's still early days for WebAR, so there are limits. Performance is simply better on an app, where there's capacity for more memory and therefore better visuals, better animations and better interactivity. One of WebAR's challenges is the limit of your operating system's web browser – there's only so much memory a web page can have, which has a knock-on effect on the visual and performance quality. 

What's more, a web page can only have access to certain parts of the device you're using, whereas a native app can access all of a device's capabilities. Because of these things, an AR experience through a web browser will be more basic than that through an app – meaning if you want the convenience of WebAR, you need to be thinking of simple but effective experiences instead.

What will WebAR be like in the future?

At the moment, it's hard to say. As mentioned, WebAR is currently limited mostly by the browser – so how much the technology will develop rather depends on what the big players like Google and Apple develop. 

What seems certain is that Apple is very much betting on AR, so it would be both beneficial and make sense for them to build their own AR capabilities straight into their operating system – and a web browser is the simplest option. In any case, Web AR is proving the case for quick and convenient AR experiences that, although simple, can have a real impact – so it's likely we'll only be seeing more of this capability in the future.

This article was originally published in 3D World magazine. Subscribe here.

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Ben Graves is a senior developer at Immersive Studios.