Top Mobile Augmented Reality Tools in 2020

Bryan Hill
2 minutes

Augmented reality is quickly becoming the next big thing. Ever since Apple has announced its entry into the market back in 2017, there has been a significant increase in developers ready to tackle this new technology head-on. Augmented reality apps carry the enormous potential and allure of previously unexplored markets, with opportunity waiting at every corner.

In order to successfully create such an app, you’ll need to choose an augmented reality tool. There are quite a few to choose from as the market expands, however, not all are equally as good. Choosing the right one plays a vital role in actually building the app. Do it wrong and the whole project might suffer long term. This article will explore the top augmented reality tools and help make you informed choices on how to approach building your app.

Types of augmented reality apps

Before we go any further into exploring actual tools you can use to develop them, let us explore the two main types of augmented reality apps: marker-based and location-based. 

Marker-based AR apps

Marker-based apps work based on the principle of image recognition. By using black and white markers they identify content in the real world and use it to overlay the AR one on top. In order for users to see an augmented component, they have to point the camera on the position of the marker. Once recognized, the app overlays the digital data associated with the marker so it displays it on the image. 

Vuforia maker based AR example.
Marker-based AR example (source: Appreal-VR)

This kind of apps is especially popular in advertising, largely due to the fact they’re very simple to make. The images are already coded into the app, all it takes is a marker to trigger them. This way you save time and resources while making sure the experience is still quite solid. 

Location-based AR apps

Location-based apps work without the need for any real-world markers. They quite a bit more complex than your average marker-based app, as they first detect the position of the phone with GPS, the built-in accelerometer and a digital compass. Only then is the augmented object places on top of the real place a user is looking at trough his camera.

Pokemon go AR system preview.
Example of the Pokemon Go AR system (source: Pokemon Go)

Probably the most popular location-based AR app is Pokemon Go. In many ways, it served as a concept for any future games to come. Most of all, it showed users that apps can deliver real-time and engaging content based on location. For example, there are location-based apps that can tell you more about locations around you or point you to the location where your car is parked.

Criteria for choosing a mobile augmented reality tool

Choosing the right tool for the job can be a challenging process. There are quite a few things to consider, like getting just the features you need for the right amount of price. Here’s a list of things you should take into account before deciding to purchase one.

The price

The price is one of those things that distinguishes any two products. There is a multitude of options when it comes to AR development, ranging from free to paid. Open source AR tools can be a good place to start if you’re new to the technology, even more so since they offer a wide-ranging list of contributors.

Paid AR tools, on the other hand, offer a more robust system with scalable options and pricing options that depend on your current needs. Some of them even offer a free demo version of the full thing, just to get you hooked on it. It goes beyond saying that if you’re looking to build a complex app with serious features, this is the way to go. Most big-scale commercial content requires a license, so ready for anything.

Platform and game engine & toolkit support

These two are the essential features of an AR tool. Most of them support Android and iOS these days, so you won’t have any problems choosing one that fits your needs perfectly. However, you’ll want to go and check to make sure the tool of choice plays well with some of the most popular game engines around.

The first and most famous one is Unity, the choice weapon of many game developers worldwide. It can also be used to create some pretty cool AR apps and scales really well. Doesn’t matter if you’re doing something cutting edge or simply trying out an already existing idea, this is a great way to go.

Another thing you should have an eye out for is OpenSceneGraph support. It’s a popular 3D toolkit that is widely used in computer games, models, visulization and many others. Ideally, support for such a tool along with Unity makes a perfect candidate for your developing needs.

Geolocation and SLAM support

Geolocation is an absolute AR essential, allowing apps to overlay data based on a user’s location in the world. Without it, your capability of creating apps might be severely limited — or even impossible.

SLAM is an algorithm that maps the environment where the user is located and is used to track movement. It shows great potential, largely based on the fact that this ability can be used indoors, as opposed to GPS which sometimes does not work in closed spaces.

Local and cloud-based storage

Choosing between these two types of storage is a big deal when it comes to AR development. Typically, local based storage is good enough if your app doesn’t store too much data. If it does, you’ll probably want to opt-in for a more upscale approach and store all you need in a cloud setting.

Another important thing here is the number of markers your app is potentially going to use. Some SDKs may support various amounts of markers you can place, even more, they differ in the way they’re stored. If you’re looking to store all your makers in a cloud, you won’t be able to use them while offline. When picking an AR tool suited for your needs, make sure you’re clear which one suits your needs best.

Top mobile augmented reality tools in 2020

Let’s have a look at the best mobile development tools in 2020 in a side-by-side comparison.

NameVuforiaApple ARKitGoogle ARCoreARToolKit
AboutGreat for creating marker-based AR appsAllows you to create customized VuMarksMade by Apple for marker-based appsOffers a robust system for interacting and organizing items in an environmentMade by Google for creating marker-based appsComplex and specially designed for Android OSGreat for creating locationr-based AR appsOpen-source tool rich with features
PricingFree Classic version – $499 one timeCloud version – $99 per month Pro version – TBDFree  Free Free 
PlatformiOS, Android, Universal Windows Platform, UnityiOSAndroidAndroid, iOS, Linux, Windows, Mac OS and Smart Glasses
SupportCloud and local storageSmart terrain Text recognition with a 100,000 words libraryUnity supportRobust face tracking 2D objects detection and interaction Unity and Unreal engine supportMotion trackingEnvironmental understandingLight estimationJava/OpenGL, Unity, and Unreal engine supportGPS and compasses support Single and dual camera support Unity and OpenSceneGraph support  
Best forSmall to enterprise size teams across all platformsAnyone who’s looking to make AR apps in the Apple environmentAnyone who’s looking to make AR apps in the Google environmentSmall to medium size teams across all platforms

Conclusion

There’s no denying that augmented reality has really grown into an increasingly popular trend in the mobile industry. One might say it’s even the future of mobile apps, provided the technology is still quite new.

There is still plenty of space for augmented reality tools to grow and expand in the market, so there’s no real telling what the future will hold. To anyone that’s looking to develop their own virtual reality app, be sure to conduct research and only start developing once you’re 100% sure about the choice you’ve made.