Augmented Reality in Your Browser

Authors: Edward Caulfield
Release Date: June 8, 2017

As a means to introduce myself to Augmented Reality, I did research on what I refer to as Easy AR CMS – Easy Augmented Reality Content Management Systems. Basically, these are AR CMS systems that allow you to create an AR experience without a single line of coding. Simply configure the experience via your browser and point an AR scanner at a target.

While doing this research it became clear to me that AR has a problem that very few people seemed to care about, which is the fact that every AR vendor has created their own AR scanner. Because many customers want to control the full AR experience, they will white label and customise the scanners, with the result that every time you want to use an AR experience, you have to dig out the appropriate scanner.

Maybe this will be fine for a half dozen AR experiences, but it doesn’t scale. Everyone in AR is talking about the incredible breadth of possible applications and how the technology will eventually overwhelm Smartphones. However, you can’t have the kind of explosive growth that everyone is expecting if each experience requires its own app. Thus, the need for browser based AR experiences is pretty obvious. One app, thousands of experiences. It doesn’t take a genius to grasp this.

Unfortunately, the Augmented Reality market is still in its baby shoes and the options for browser based Augmented Reality are quite limited. What follows is a list of what is currently available.

If you are aware of additional products or projects, please let me know and I’ll add them.

AWE.Media

AWE is currently the only off-the-shelf, production quality browser based AR application that I was able to find. The AR experience has to be created using AWE’s tools and hosted on their servers, but will run in either Firefox, Chrome, Opera or Safari with no plugins required.

Once you create an Augmented Reality experience you simply send the URL to anybody you want and, if they have one of the over 3 Billion capable web browsers then they should be able to run the experience. You can create and view these experiences using any type of device – your mobile, tablet, computer or head mounted display.

They also have location based capabilities which lets you add virtual content via a simple map based interface, or directly in your live view, as well as basic marker based tracking. Additionally, they have recently demonstrated the first functional version of Natural Feature Tracking working in a standard web browser, which they say will release “soon”.

The interface of AWE is clean and easy to use, with the only pain-point being that the help content is still being rolled out. But, at $38 per month ($19 per month if you buy an annual license), just about everyone can afford to experiment with it and see if it meets their needs.

I look forward to seeing how AWE matures over time. It shows a lot of promise to be a very valuable AR tool.

Chrome & WebAR

Google is working with the development community to add AR capabilities to WebVR, however it requires a Tango enabled device, of which there are only two – Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and Asus ZenFone AR. Not surprisingly, Google is focusing their efforts on Chrome, but as Mozilla is also involved with WebVR, I see no reason why this work couldn’t be leveraged to Firefox or any other common browser.

Taken directly from the project’s GitHub page:

This project’s goal is to provide an initial implementation of a possible Augmented Reality (AR) API for the Web on top of Chromium. The initial prototype is built on top of the Tango platform for Android by Google. Maybe, more platforms will be supported in the future. There is a precompiled and working prototype you can use right away along with documentation of the APIs and some examples. There is also a tutorial on how to build your own version of modified Chromium with the WebAR APIs in it.

A major objective of this project is to get a conversation going on the subject of how to provide Augmented Reality capabilities to the web: WebAR.

Although this project seems to be quite active, there is no visibility towards when it could be expected to be released.

The Argon Project

The Argon Project is basically a research effort by the Georgia Institute of Technology to create an AR enabled web site that can be viewed in their browser. Unfortunately, the browser is only available for iOS.

As this is a JavaScript based research project, it is not for the faint of heart and clearly not plug-and-play. Approach with abundant time, curiosity and technical background.

The project seems to be active, as the most recent update was May 31, 2017.

AR.js & Three.js

These appears to be a personal projects from Jerome Etienne hosted on GitHub. According to Jerome, this should work on Android and Windows Mobile, but not on iOS. As he used to work for DAQRI, it looks like Jerome is up to his eyeballs in this topic and is well placed to be doing some cutting edge work.

Jerome highlights the following features of AR.js

  • Very Fast : it runs efficiently even on phones. 60 fps on my 2 year-old phone!
  • Web-based : It is a pure web solution, so no installation required. Full javascript based on three.js + jsartoolkit5
  • Open Source : It is completely open source and free of charge!
  • Standards : It works on any phone with webgl and webrtc

As with the Argon Project, these are JavaScript projects and not finished products. Only suggested for serious coders.

Jerome seems to still be investing in these project, as AR.js was last updated on June 1, 2017.

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