By now, it’s hard to imagine not having heard of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), and with open development stacks like ARKit and ARCore out in the wild for anyone to experiment with, we’re getting one particular question from a lot of people: “Do I need to add AR features to my app?”

Below, we’ll look at some of the typical use cases for AR and VR, and try to help you determine if an AR strategy is the right move for your app. divider 600

What is augmented reality (AR)?

Augmented reality (AR) is when your real world is augmented by technology, typically with a visual. This is different from virtual reality (VR), which is an all-new reality and typically requires a headset to achieve full immersion.

A popular example of AR in an app is Pokémon GO, a game centered around catching Pokémon in the real world. The idea is that you walk around and see Pokémon and try to catch them.

Pokemon Go Screenshot iOS

How is virtual reality (VR) different?

A VR app typically requires a headset and sometimes hand controllers. Here’s WillowTree Software Engineer Brandon Carter trying out the HTC Vive headset and controllers: Brandon Carter in VR

VR certainly has a wide range in price and functionality, from fully integrated sets like the above HTC Vive to Google’s more economical headset called the Cardboard (which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like). Either way, the requirement of a headset is a large hurdle for many users. Even if they have a headset, they are not likely to carry it with them at all times, meaning that the window of feature usability is significantly smaller than with an AR feature for which all you need is your phone. Pros and Cons of AR and VR

Because of the recent releases and improvements to Apple’s ARKit and Android’s ARCore, developing apps with AR capabilities is going to become easier, which in turn will make those apps available more widely in app stores. In fact, Apple already has a section of its App Store dedicated to apps with AR features.

App Store AR app screengrab Apple’s App Store now features a “Get Started with AR” section. However, with so many apps starting to fill the space, it’s hard to get an idea of how AR features fit into mobile apps. A common theme is that successful AR apps provide value aside from their augmented reality features.

How to make an AR app that outlasts novelty

Many apps use AR to entertain the user—and do little else. When this happens, the user will download the app, use it once or twice, and then promptly delete it off of their phone.

An example of this is the White House’s 1600 app. The app uses a one-dollar bill to create an AR experience of the White House, using the bill as a frame of reference for size and placement. The app is entertaining; however, after seeing it once or twice, you have no reason to keep the app on your phone. Dollar Bill White House app screenshot

Snapchat and AR success

One of the most popular and successful apps with AR features is Snapchat. Snapchat is an entertaining app that has succeeded at the difficult task of staying relevant because of the value it provides to users as a social media platform.

In September of 2015, Snapchat introduced face filters which allows users to distort their own (or friends) faces with different lenses. This year, Snapchat introduced World Lenses. These are new 3D lenses that allow users to place objects into their environments.

Snapchat also recently introduced Bitmoji AR filters which allows users to use their own personal avatars in Snapchat. These filters are constantly being updated and provide users with a new experience every time they open the app. Below is an example of a bitmoji that I made of myself, which Snapchat then takes and puts into an AR experience.

Snapchat provides value to its users by being a social media platform of course, so even if AR features were removed tomorrow the app would continue to provide value. But this shows that you can have a “successful AR app” without AR being a large part of the app.

Snapchat Bitmoji Demo

Give users more than just AR

One of the best examples of an AR app that is both entertaining and useful is the Star Wars app. The app is meant for fans interested in Star Wars-related exclusive content.

The app has an AR feature which updates periodically, normally around the time a new movie is going to come out. The app pushes you to find posters and references to Star Wars around you for an AR experience.

However, the app also provides value to users by providing them with other features such as articles, countdowns, and push notifications related to new Star Wars movies. This way, even if you find all of the AR clues or get tired of the feature, there’s still a reason to keep the app on your phone.

Star Wars AR Screengrab iOS

The image on the left shows the main dashboard in the Star Wars app, detailing the app’s non-VR content. The image on the right shows an AR experience that occurs after scanning one of the Rogue One posters (which we pulled up on an iPhone shown behind the stormtrooper).

The best AR apps provide real, practical value

The arguably strongest possibilities of AR are actually far more practical. Magnolia Home, for example, has created Magnolia, a traditional shopping app that also offers 3D models of some of its products. (You can find similar features in the Ikea and Wayfair apps.)

These AR features don’t make up the entire app, but rather support the main purpose of the app, which is to help people buy furniture and décor for their homes. Users can look at 3D models of furniture in their homes so that they can make their purchasing decisions.

Magnolia placement screenshot iOS

The image on the left shows a typical product view in the Magnolia app. Once you swipe through the pictures you have the option of “previewing” the product. The image on the right shows the AR model of this vase that comes up when you preview it. The AR allows the user to place the vase in their home and get an idea of the size, all without having to see it in real life.

App success with—and without—AR

Developing AR apps has become easier and more cost-efficient thanks to support from both Google and Apple, which means more and more upcoming apps will provide AR features. But simply adding AR to an app doesn’t ensure success. To attain long-term success in the app stores, it’s important to ask the question: “does this app still provide value without AR?” If not, moving your app past a novelty into something with true user staying power is likely to prove challenging.

In the end, there’s no replacing a solid product strategy, which begins with understanding the problem your app aims to solve. With AR, the clue really is in the title—you’ve got to understand your users’ reality first before you start worrying about how you’re going to augment it.