How to create an AR mobile application

by | Nov 3, 2021

Most people don’t realize that they are carrying an AR device with them in their pocket, everywhere they go.

Pretty much all phones sold after 2017 have AR compatible firmware and at least a 7 – 30 megapixel camera to feed in real-world information. On a higher-end phone, it’s not uncommon to find laptop-grade specs, with 8GB of RAM and a lightning-fast processor to boot.

When given the task, phones and tablets can deliver crisp AR experiences, and in 2021, the barriers for turning an idea into an AR mobile app have never been lower.

It’s only now that we are starting to seeing a wider adoption of AR mobile applications.

What is an AR mobile application?

To answer that we first have to talk about AR, which stands for augmented reality.

Essentially AR is placing, or augmenting, digital information on top of what you are looking at in the real world.

With mobile AR you take visual information from the devices’ camera and overlay digital information into that feed which is shown on the phone’s screen.

Want to know how old that chicken in your fridge is?

Imagine if you could hold your phone up to an open refrigerator, look at the screen, and on it see the chicken breast alongside a floating block of text that reads:

Chicken Breast

Best Before 26/6/2021
Defrosted: 23/6/2021
Purchase Date: 21/6/2021

That’s possible with AR.

If you want to download an AR app right now, Google Lens is an image recognition AR app that lets you run a reverse Google Image search by pointing the camera at whatever you want to search for.

Ikea has a mobile app, called Ikea Place, that will let you place furniture in your home so you can see what a dresser will look like in your bedroom before buying it.

How AR mobile apps are built?

There are two technologies, Google’s ARCore and Apple’s ARKit that are easily the most popular for AR development. So for this article, we will talk about them.

Both are SDKs (software development kits) that provide bundles of useful functionality that assist with building AR applications.

Both have been catalysts for AR development since 2017 – 2018 when they were first released.

A developer can use one of these SDKs to add gravity to a mobile AR game in five minutes, instead of five days or five weeks it used to take.

Google and Apple’s SDKs simplify lighting. motion tracking, content placement, content manipulation, user interactions and more.

They are free for any developer to use. ARCore and ARKit are also compatible with game engines like Unity and Unreal. These tools speed up modelling, and create 3D virtual environments.

How do AR apps know about their surroundings?

Information about the environment comes in from the camera, but that is human information, it’s meaningless to a computer.

For a long time, AR Apps didn’t know about their surroundings. They used markers to know where and how to display content, but had no concept of a floor, or walls, or the empty space between.

To solve this problem, both ARCore and ARKit uses a process called simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM for short.

SLAM looks through the video feed and identifies unique shapes. By marking the corner of a bookshelf or the flat top of a table, SLAM creates a map of feature points and uses the relative distance of these points to tell when the phone’s location changes and to understand where the phone is relative to the world around it. This is how AR mobile apps determine the boundaries of each geometric plane.

Iphone 12 LiDar scanner for advanced depth tracking

The new iPhone 12 Pro and iPad 12 both have LiDAR scanners.

LiDAR is like sonar but with light.

It shoots light out of a sensor and counts how long it takes to bounce off an object and back to the sensor.

Drones use LiDAR to survey topography from the sky, and LiDAR is the eyes of Google’s self-driving car.

For AR, LiDAR is important because it enables extremely accurate depth tracking and more precise placement of models. It can also scan and model objects, acting as the future doorway that physical objects will travel through to enter the digital AR realm.

The newest lidar “scan” is accurate within a 1% range, while the non-lidar scan is accurate within a 5% range.

Marker vs markerless tracking

A marker is a 2D image or a 3D object which is trained beforehand so that it can be identified later when it appears in the camera’s field of view while the app is actively searching for it.

After a marker is recognized, content like a 3D model or some text or animation is rendered to the screen. Often information about the position and scale of what’s rendered is derived from visual cues within the marker.

Brands and logos are commonly made into markers that trigger AR experiences. There are also digital markers like GPS markers.

What are the advantages of mobile AR over AR headset?

The main advantage that mobile AR has over an AR headset is that everyone has a phone.

The reach of mobile AR is way more significant than that of headset or smart glasses AR. The average consumer is familiar with their phone and the App store so no matter what you build people will know how to download and use it.

Even if the intended user doesn’t bring their own phone with them, to see the experience you prepared for them, Mobile phones and tablets are cheaper than Microsoft Hololenses and most smart glasses. Makes it a little more affordable to have a few demonstration tablets on hand or get one or two for the office.

Mobile devices have other complementary technology like GPS, mobile data, BlueTooth, NFC payments.

They have the user’s digital identity, contact information, social media apps and email inboxes. The phone is in general is very ingrained into our digital lives.

Mobile AR is great for museum exhibitions, product showcases, in-store guidance, etc. It’s untethered, so people can walk around a large area without a cord connecting their phone to a PC.

All this allows mobile AR to be a little more spontaneous. With headset AR you almost always need an onsite technician to make sure it’s all running smoothly. On the other hand, a headset AR kit is used at home or at the office.

Does AR work on any mobile?

Apple’s ARKit only works on iPhones that have A9 chips or newer. This means AR applications will work on any iPhone 6s or more recent iPhone. Google’s ARCore is compatible with most Android phones with Android 7.0 or later.

Almost any phone sold after 2018 will support AR. Some surveys put AR capability at around 26% before 2018, but adoption is exponential.

From 2019 to 2020 yearly downloads of Google Play Services for AR increased from 500 million to 1 billion.

This report makes a lot of assumptions but concludes that about 50% of all phones in circulation are now AR-enabled.

In 2021, Statista estimates there are 1.96 billion mobile AR users worldwide, which adds up to a little more than 50%

How can AR for mobile be used in retail? 

Retail businesses can use AR mobile apps to show off the benefits of their products or to support what a sales agent is saying or support what a brand is saying. Most products aren’t that innovative. They aren’t pushing boundaries or showing the user something fundamentally new. So it’s a question of differentiation. AR experiences are different. People talk about them. They share them and they remember the brand that shows them to them.

For example, if you’re in the business of clothing or fashion retail, you can use AR apps to let customers see how they look in different outfits, without necessarily going to the changing room every time. You can link that to social media and let the user share a 360-degree image of them wearing that outfit.

Another big brain AR experience is how L’Oreal uses a mobile app to allow customers to try on different lipsticks and makeups in-store or online.

These features improve a customers shopping journey. They create genuine excitement around a product. It’s rare that marketing achieves that.

What are some of the best AR apps for Android/IOS?

Augmented Reality isn’t a new technology, rather it’s a developing technology. Each year, AR apps are becoming more advanced, diverse, immersive, and more realistic. This development is so rapid that it’s difficult to choose the best AR apps because what’s the best today can easily be overthrown by a new AR app tomorrow.

Here are some of the most innovative AR apps right now:


Using Augmented Reality is a perfect way to visualize and plan interior design ideas for your home. The Houzz app lets you choose different layout designs and see how they would look in your home interior.

There’s also an e-commerce function within the app, which lets users buy and sell furniture. Using this app you can see how your house looks with different furniture, wall designs, paints, and lightings.

YouCam Makeup

YouCam makes it simpler to test different makeups from tons of major brands. The user can try on different looks to choose the ones they like adding a whole look to their cart with a couple of clicks.

BBC Civilizations AR

AR is continuously making big changes to how we access information and learn. AR apps are making education fun, immersive, and engaging. The BBC Civilizations are such an app that’s changing the way we learn about history.

Learning about the pyramid or ancient greek statues on a book or a web page is a bit dull. With the BBC Civilizations app, you can view the realistic 3D models of any ancient artefacts from around the world, take a closeup look, and listen to their history. You can even see what a mummy looks like from the inside.

These are just some of the most innovative AR mobile apps out there. There are also social media apps that are constantly using AR features to diversify their user interaction. For instance, Snapchat basically became popular because of its AR features, where users were able to take pictures and videos using 3D filters. Who doesn’t remember those funny dog ear filters?

AR is also constantly being introduced into gaming apps. Pokemon Go was the first-ever fully AR-based mobile game that truly showed the power and potential of mobile AR. Users could just go into the gaming app, open their camera, and they’d see 3D Pokemons popping up around them. They’re also able to interact with these virtual creatures.

So, AR apps will continue to grow and expand across different industries. There are already more than 10,000 AR-enabled apps on the IOS and Google Play stores. This number will surely grow as more than 500 million devices are now AR compatible.

Using AR mobile applications for the property industry

Just like retail, AR mobile apps are making it easier to buy, rent and sell properties in the market. In the real estate industry, AR first emerged as a solution for selling properties off the plan.

Selling an empty or under construction property is difficult, because customers don’t know what to expect once the construction is finished. With the help of AR, customers can just open a phone camera, point it towards the empty property and it will show them a 3D model of the future building.

This strategy helps to influence a client to purchase the property off-the-plan and saves the real estate agent a lot of time and money in conducting property visits.

It’s also changing how properties are listed in the market. Usually, when you’re planning to buy or rent a new property, you’ll visit a real-estate website and go through hundreds of options.

With AR apps, however, you can just go outside, pull up your phone camera, and it’ll show you all the available properties around you. As you walk by buildings, you’ll see digital information overlay popping up over them.

For real estate agents, AR apps create better engagement with potential clients and help businesses to stand out amongst the competitors. For customers, AR apps provide an interactive, unique, faster way of purchasing or renting properties.

How much does it cost to develop an AR application for mobile?

When it comes to the development cost, there’s no clear-cut formula. Costing varies based on different app types, and the features you want to include.

The best way to estimate the cost is based on the hours needed for the overall development. If an AR app requires around 160 working hours, then the cost can range between $5,000-$10,000.

However, custom-built apps that have a lot of advanced features will take more time and more cost. Apps that take months to develop might end up costing $50,000 – $10,000.

What other use cases are they for AR mobile apps?

Mobile AR is a proven technology in manufacturing where it helps with inventory and delivering distraction-free instructions to workers.

It’s also helping healthcare professionals to break down complex medical concepts and treatments into interactive 3D forms, so patients and students can easily understand complex procedures.

AR apps are also great for travelling to a new and unfamiliar location. When you’re in a new city, you can just pull up your phone camera and it shows you the best restaurants, available hotels, popular places, and any other information using digital overlays.

It’s also a great solution for advanced real-time navigation. Instead of looking at the map and figuring out the direction, AR apps show you live directions on the road in front of you.

Whats  the future of mobile AR?

AR is developing rapidly, and the demand for AR applications have accelerated across different industries.

Both Google and Apple have released an updated open-source AR development tool kit (Apple ARKit 4, Google ARCore), which will allow more developers to easily explore advanced and complex features of AR. So, we’ll definitely see a big boom in AR apps in the near future.

Also, the new generation of AR will be more realistic. It won’t be just cartoonish 3D models shown on the screen. There will be more realistic 3D models, detailed information overlays, and a more immersive visual experience.

Retail will be a big focus for new AR apps. The pandemic has influenced more and more consumers to shop online. As online shopping continues to become the norm, AR apps will be used more frequently by retailers to enhance the shopping journey of their consumers.

A major challenge for online retailers is the increasing cost of returns. Last year, 30% of the overall online orders in the global e-commerce industry were returned and refunded. To overcome this challenge, businesses will continue to adopt mobile AR, so that consumers can actually make a more informed and effective purchase decision.

We’ll also see our educational institutes incorporating mobile AR into their teaching methods. The digital revolution changed the way users used it to access information. From books and papers, we moved to search engines. Today, we can just type a question and hundreds of answers will be in front of our screen.

But we’re already on our way towards a new age for information, where we don’t even have to type or search for information. Mobile AR will facilitate access to real-time information, where all the information will be displayed in front of us, through our mobile camera lens.

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