7 augmented reality companies to watch

Eyes on AR

2018 had been heralded as a major year for Augmented Reality. Interest and investment from leading technology businesses signalled that augmented reality could finally live up to the hype and move into the mass market. Unfortunately, a lack of customer adoption and enduring problems with hardware and software meant that 2018 was yet another year of set up. Even Magic Leap's first developer's kit failed to live up to expectations.

However, the enthusiasm of influential companies and ambitious startups hasn't gone away and by 2024, the AR market is predicted to exceed $50bn. 2019 could be the year that AR overcomes its technological hiccups, and brings an augmented world into focus.

The future of AR isn’t just about startups. Incumbents are making big plays in this field too. The business applications of AR are growing in terms of data visualisation, conferencing and operator support and are anticipated to continue to do so.

Here we list seven key companies to watch in AR in the near term.

1) Apple

Under Tim Cook's leadership, Apple has shown clear enthusiasm for augmented reality. At its 2017 Worldwide Developer's Conference, Apple unveiled its ARKit. The latest iPhone models (the 8, 8 Plus, and X) run on powerful, AR-friendly A11 bionic chips. The company has also made a number of significant acquisitions, gradually building up a profile of promising AR associates. In 2015, for example, Apple bought Metaoi, a startup specialising in augmented reality software.

The company is currently rumoured to be working on a pair of wireless specs to overlay digital content onto the real world. Various release dates have been suggested but, true to form, Apple have revealed very little about the product. It looks like they're taking their time – probably in the hope of avoiding the same fate as Google Glass.

2) Microsoft

Microsoft refers to itself as 'the leader in mixed reality'. Mixed reality refers to the combined power of augmented and virtual reality when deployed in the real world. Their flagship HoloLens headset is generally considered an AR device. The first iteration of HoloLens went on sale in 2015 with a price tag of £2,719. While the price limited its adoption in the consumer market, the product offered truly high quality AR and demonstrated Microsoft's success in developing the technology. Also in 2015, Microsoft released a catalogue of mixed reality experiences on its Windows Mixed Reality platform. Users can access mixed reality content including games, 360° videos, social media, and live events.

The announcement of a second version of HoloLens, HoloLens 2, is expected in the first quarter of this year. It is likely to be lighter than its predecessor and will feature a custom Holographic Processing Unit embedded with an AI coprocessor. This will enable the headset to visualise data locally without communicating with the cloud, speeding up object recognition and increasing use across business applications.

3) Niantic

Niantic, a Google spin off, was founded in 2010 to 'enrich our experiences as human beings in the real world' with augmented reality. The company's Real World Platform manages shared AR communications, security, mapping, and functionality. According to Niantic, it is the world's only 'planet scale' augmented reality platform. In the summer of 2016, Niantic launched the game that would quickly become the poster child of augmented reality. The hugely popular Pokémon Go brought AR into the mainstream and remains the most successful AR game ever made.

In late 2017, Niantic announced that it had partnered with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment to bring out another cult title. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite will be released later this year. Niantic is now valued at almost $4bn following a $245 series C funding round which closed earlier this month.

AR gaming is an economy in its own right and popular gaming shifts public awareness to the technologies which in turn makes wider business adoption more viable and accessible.

4) Zappar

Set up in 2011, Zappar aims to democratise AR through a free app and simple SaaS model for brands who want to build AR solutions. The company has partnered with Unilevel, Warner Bros and AXA, and has worked with numerous influential brands like Coca Cola and Sony. Zappar's ZapWorks platform lets marketers, designers and developers create interactive experiences which are accessed by scanning zapcodes via mobile. Zapcodes can turn products, packaging, and passive print into multimedia channels that drive engagement and unlock value for brands. At the 2017 Augmented World Expo, ZapWorks was named the Best Authoring And Publishing Tool.

In 2019, CEO Caspar Thykier expects to see greater consumer adoption and richer mobile AR experiences, and has promised 'some exciting announcements' for the year ahead, we look forward to seeing what they might be.

5) Augmented Reality Labs

After seven years of promise, augmented reality pioneer Blippar went into administration in 2018. However, at the beginning of this year, Blippar's founder Ambarish Mitra registered a new AR company called Augmented Reality Labs. We know next to nothing about Mitra's new company, but what we do know is that it will build on Blippar's formidable expertise. Before the company went bust, it worked with the likes of Jaguar, Cadbury's, and Heinz. It created the first AR digital ad platform, and was working towards a universal visual browser for mobile AR. After Blippar's blip, it will be interesting to see how quickly Augmented Reality Labs moves, and whether it can avoid the same fate.

6) Lucyd

What happens when you merge augmented reality and blockchain? When AR startup Lucyd releases their blockchain powered, AR 'smartglasses' in the next couple of months, we'll find out. Lucyd was founded in 2017 with the ultimate goal of creating the world's first highly functional smartglasses for the mass market. Lucyd's glasses are built on a decentralised blockchain called Lucyd Lab AR. This enables open innovation, and is helping to democratise AR. Lucyd is completely crowdfunded – one of the perks for investors was the chance to exchange Lucyd tokens for an early release of their smartglasses.

At the beginning of last year, Lucyd partnered with leading augmented reality development company Gravity Jack. Gravity Jack will create AR apps for Lucyd's next generation of glasses, which will go head to head with Apple and Microsoft.

7) Magic Leap

In 2018, Magic Leap finally brought out a tangible product after years of hype. While the Magic Leap One headset made expected improvements on earlier, alternative HMDs, it certainly didn't wow the technological community. Then, to add insult to injury, Magic Leap lost a $480m military contract to Microsoft.

Even so, Magic Leap is still very much considered 'the one to watch' in this space. As of this month, the startup has expanded its partnership with AT&T to build solutions for businesses. The first three industries to benefit will be manufacturing, retail, and healthcare... In other words, Magic Leap is diversifying. AT&T will also provide the 5G connectivity needed to deliver high quality AR content. A new job listing posted earlier this month suggests that Magic Leap is looking into mobile AR – a central trend in the evolution of augmented reality.