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Mobile AR App Design Review #2: Torch Drops The Hammer

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Mobile AR App Design Review #2: Torch Drops The Hammer

The AR experts at Torch3D review some more apps to illustrate the dos and don'ts of innovation in mobile AR. Click here to read more.

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On the hunt for utilitarian mobile augmented reality apps, we rediscover the power of convergence.

This week we are going to follow up our surprisingly well-received first mobile AR app design review post, which took an in-depth look at simple line-drawing apps, with a review of apps built to perform a specific utilitarian function.

The challenge we faced in writing this post: there just aren’t very many apps focused on utility in mobile AR. There are a fair number of content creation apps (of which line drawing apps are a primitive species) and one could argue they have their uses, but beyond the growing handful of furniture placement apps, which we plan to cover soon, apps that solve pressing problems are scarce in the Apple and Google app stores.

But, we at Torch are nothing if we are not dedicated to our users. So we scrolled, pinched, tapped, and did the whole wax-on-wax-off plane-finding gesture in dozens of apps to bring you this next crop of design reviews.


By Vuforia (https://chalk.vuforia.com/) 3.2 stars, 35 reviews

Summary: Chalk from Vuforia is an interesting app, not only because it is focused on solving a specific problem — remote access for technical support — but because it is squarely focused on enterprise productivity. In fact, the day we finalized the draft of this post, Vuforia announced a major repositioning (or underscored their existing positioning) of Chalk as an enterprise customer support app, modifying its previous and completely apt motto — See it. Solve it. Together. — with a new, somewhat more prolix but equally descriptive Communicate. Collaborate. Get it done.

There is a lot to like about this app, and it is one we at Torch have opened often to check out specific design decisions. Calling itself a digital chalkboard, Chalk is positioned as a tool for remote customer service. It delivers on this promise by combining shared camera views, line drawing, and the communications features (voice, contact list) found on mobile devices.

Say you bought a new monitor and don’t know how to connect it to your USB hub (I’m not saying the brain trust at Torch has struggled with this sort of issue but I’m also not not saying it). With Chalk you could call a friend, share your camera view to them, and they could draw a line in your immersive space that shows you the right port to which to connect your hub, while talking you through the steps and trying to keep your spirits up.

The lines, called Chalk marks, are supposed to stay where you placed them. Anyone who has worked with mobile AR knows the promise of placement persistence rarely meets the reality. It is curious that an application that uses virtual lines to help solve real-world problems is rated so much lower than the simple line drawing apps, which have a fraction of the utility and yet consistently score above four stars on the App Store. A quick look at reviews (of which, there are only a few) gives a good idea why:

I read the privacy policy available along with the app, and while it talks about how it uses contacts (so you can call collaborators and pull them into your view) as well as device and usage data, they also state, “When You enter a Call with another user, You are transmitting voice and video via the Internet. We do not view or listen to the content of Your calls made via Vuforia Chalk, and we do not store Your audio or video once they have been delivered to their destination.” Seems like the developer response was correct.

Out of curiosity, I re-installed the app to revisit the onboarding experience and promptly received two Apple notifications asking for access to the camera and microphone respectively that plainly stating how Chalk will use the data. I guess nobody reads anymore. Nevertheless, this is a legitimate design concern that should be addressed.

If mobile AR apps are really all about the camera, then it is highly likely users will have concerns about what happens when they share their camera view. We recommend that you go well out of your way to assuage any concerns that you are going to view or collect mic and camera information, unless you plan to. In which case, boo to you.

Something else we appreciate about Chalk is how it uses so many of the mobile device’s foundational features. I know I personally get overly focused on what the mobile device I am using is doing in AR and forget all the other things of which these devices are capable. Chalk integrates phone, camera, live video conferencing, and contact list along with AR.

Overall, we learned a lot from Chalk. If we had a scoring system that awarded between one and five torches, this would get three and a half torches (our standards are stringent). Great job.

What We Learned

  1. Camera sharing and privacy — people are sensitive about sharing their camera data. Make sure your privacy policy is clear.
  2. Don’t overlook the “boring, old” features — mobile devices offer a lot of functionality beyond just the camera. Keep in mind all the other APIs and services into which you can integrate.
  3. Practical use cases are emerging — whether for enterprise customer service or just casual assistance, Chalk has utility.

What’s Cool

  1. Shared Camera — this is so cool. Mobile AR has three components — 2D UX, 3D UX, and the stuff in the camera. Chalk is the first app we’ve ever seen that allows you to share all three in real time. Designers and developers, use this idea!
  2. Mobile devices are feature rich — designers, keep in mind the rich functionality available on these devices and already familiar to your users as you design UX.
  3. Keeping it real(-time) — Real-time collaboration in mobile AR has so much potential and Chalk proves it.

What to Avoid

  1. Don’t overlook privacy concerns — if you are asking for users to trust you, don’t hide what you are doing in a privacy policy no one reads. Tell them what you are doing with their info when you share.

Sketch AR

Rating 3.7, 63 Ratings on Apple App Store; available also on Google Play.

Next up is Sketch AR, a much-ballyhooed app that won a 2018 Webby Award for the best use of Augmented Reality, along with recognition as one of the best apps of 2017 from no less than Wired, Tech Radar, and Product Hunt.

Whatsmore, on its website, Sketch AR describes itself as “a fully-fledged tool for teaching drawing using augmented reality, machine learning, and neural networks. The app puts virtual images on paper to let you trace drawings from your phone.”

WHOA! This sounds pretty awesome. Imagine a data center full of GPUs all purring away, helping you draw better. Look out, Leonardo.

The idea is that the user lines up the mobile device camera above a piece of paper onto which she has drawn four registration marks (“+” signs). The app then superimposes an AR figure on the page as seen through the screen. Looking through the screen one is reminded of those “Draw Tippy” contests on matchbooks or, as Keith Hamilton, Torch UX Designer said, the charming books of his childhood by Ed Emberley that teach children to draw.

Detail from Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals (1970)

With all this promise, the reality of Sketch AR on mobile devices, which is what we review here on the Torch Mobile AR Design Review blog, is a little bit of a letdown. Before you read further, I’m going to give you the good news — this app is probably great for users with AR glasses or mixed reality headsets. And, if you are patient, it can still be a bit of fun on mobile AR devices.

The problem we encountered is that it is simply too awkward to hold a phone — let alone a tablet — between you and a piece of paper and comfortably sketch. We tried to draw the free template — this hot new app’s free template is a unicorn (get it?!?) — and got frustrated. The device moves as you draw and there seems to be a bit of a cognitive distortion — seeing your hand on a screen is alienating. It works but it is a bit of a struggle. And, who wants to struggle when drawing unicorns?

The app also takes a long time to get started, with two separate on-boarding flows and a bunch of animal templates (templates all cost $.99 except the unicorn) to get through before you are in the camera. We counted sixteen (!!!) screens between opening the app and getting started in AR. As our readers know, any time spent outside the camera in mobile AR should be avoided.

16 onboarding screens is a lot of on-boarding screens.

More than a few on-boarding screens is a frequently cited no-no in the Torch mobile AR design book. Get users in the camera and AR as soon as possible. Some onboarding, for example asking for access to the camera, is obviously necessary but as a rule, if you are going to teach your user how to use an AR app, teach them in the camera.

We know this based on our own experience with our first alpha release. And don’t worry, we are going to review our own first app soon. It won’t be pretty.

What We Learned

  1. The screen can be an alienating layer — looking at your own hand through a camera while trying to draw is awkward and confusing.
  2. Steady on mate! — without a mount, the screen, and hence the image on the page, moves.
  3. Human-centered design matters — I suggest designers read the Google Augmented Design Guidelines for some thoughts on putting the human first in the experience.
  4. Ed Emberley is utterly charming — want more proof?
Ed Emberley illustration from One Wide River To Cross, adapted by Barbara Emberley.

What’s Cool

  1. Big Ambitions — I mean, neural-fricking networks! Sketch AR recognizes and embraces the possibilities of the convergence of AR, computer vision, and machine learning. Seriously, KUDOS! And designers and developers, take a lesson from Sketch AR and think big.
  2. It wants to make you better at art, which is cool — keep your first-person shooters and your Pikachu hunting apps, kids. Sketch AR wants to teach us to draw unicorns.
  3. Respect for the screen — Sketch AR doesn’t lock a single thing to the screen. It’s all for the AR. YES!

What to Avoid

  1. Gotta keep the form factor in mind — by this point, you get the point. Holding mobile devices in between you and your other hand and drawing is awkward.
  2. Use onboarding scenes, not onboarding screens — Sketch AR has lots of onboarding screens. While you need some screens, try to minimize their use. Teach the user in camera, in an onboarding scene. This is AR, a cool new technology. Use it. Delight your user from the start.

Food Network In the Kitchen

App Rating 4.8, 16.3K Ratings on Apple App Store, Also available on Google Play.

Summary: The Food Network In the Kitchen app is a pretty standard recipe app and has no mobile AR features directly related to its core function of providing recipes and inspiration to aspiring chefs de cuisine. So, why are we reviewing it? Because this app uses mobile AR to do something almost as important: drive awareness and engagement with a social sharing feature, a feature that certainly has utility to the Food Network’s app and marketing teams.

On the main screen, in the bottom right, there is a button chirpily labeled FUN! which opens a nifty little-augmented reality cupcake builder. You select different types of liners, frosting styles, and a range of toppers. Add some text, click on share, and send either a picture of what you have concocted or a link to it in AR.

This is where it gets interesting.

The sharing link requires that you download the In the Kitchen app to view the AR cupcake. The experience isn’t extraordinary in and of itself — lots of creation apps let you assemble more complex objects or scenes from a limited palette of simple ones — but rather because it is a fast, easy way to get more people to download the app.

Does something like this have a long shelf life? Probably not. The mechanics, as I said, aren’t unique and if it works at increasing downloads, others will follow soon enough. People will get jaded and stop downloading every app that promises a pretty limited experience. But, again, these are early days and the Food Network seems to have figured out a clever application of mobile AR to helps it accomplish its marketing mission.

What We Learned

  1. The uses of Mobile AR are many and varied — don’t just limit it to support of core experience.
  2. Existing 2D apps are embracing mobile AR — watch this trend! Mobile AR as an ingredient in existing apps is here to stay.

What’s Cool

  1. Sharing drives virality — if the experience is compelling enough, you can draw people into using your app.
  2. On-brand use of mobile AR — this use of AR was pretty spot on; simple, lightweight, doesn’t take itself too seriously. You even have the option of opening a recipe for the cupcake you “make” in AR.

What to Avoid

  1. Not much really to say here. This app uses AR appropriately. We might quibble with the drawer selection behavior toggling between sleeve, frosting, and topper choices, but that’s it. Paul also suggested the app could benefit from the ability to manipulate the cupcake. No movement, rotation, or scale controls made it difficult to get the all-important social media share shot. Hey Food Network, we have a feature request!


Utility Is Lacking, but it Needn’t Be

If the app stores lack a lot of practical apps right now, that probably has more to do with a well-documented lack of tools than a need for mobile AR apps. We find it encouraging that companies are finding ways to either use AR to accomplish a core mission (Vuforia’s Chalk and Sketch AR) or to support larger business goals like market growth (the Food Network In the Kitchen app).

Respect the Camera

I suspect that we will be making this point repeatedly over the next few months. On-boarding, screen-locked 2D elements that block the camera view, and workflows that take one in and out of the camera all take away from the AR experience.

Still Mostly Single-Scene

Without the tools to design and prototype complex mobile AR apps, we probably won’t see many soon, but the ability to represent complex interactions and state changes with an AR app that has more than one scene or mode is too valuable to not take advantage of. Tell a story, take users through interactive experiences that build on each other, or simply represent changes in an application’s state — something like browsing an e-commerce site, searching, browsing, filtering, adding items to the shopping cart, then checking out, requires multiple screen designs in 2D and would require multiple scene designs in mobile AR.

Convergence Is Still a Thing

We are going to leave this post with a bit of a postscript: mobile phone convergence, a topic over which much was spilled over the past decade, continues to exert its inexorable pull on technologies, of which augmented reality is just a recent example. All the above apps exhibit this convergence, which really means that they take advantage of the ease with which one can integrate their app with one or more of the other services available on the mobile platform. Chalk is by far the most straightforward example, but both Sketch AR and the In The Kitchen app take advantage of the new crop of services available on the phone that have arrived contemporaneously with AR (e.g. AI, computer vision), as well as the well-established patterns mobile devices that have developed in the past ten years (e.g. social sharing) to amplify augmented reality experiences they offer users. Mobile AR is a powerful platform that exerts tremendous gravity because of audience reach and feature richness. It will be interesting to see how other platforms counter this pull.

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augmented reality ,mobile design ,iot ,ar ,review ,sketch

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