How to choose between a marker-based and markerless AR app

“How does it work, for god’s sake?!” If that is how the users react to your application, you have a problem. It’s not only about user experience. Everything begins with a type of the application, UX is not an exception. This article will tell you about two basic types AR apps can be: marker-based and markerless and guide you to make the right decision.

What is a marker-based AR app?

Marker-based applications are great if you want to save some money. They work on the basis of the image-recognition technology, which is a well-known and developed technology. To display the user a digital image in the right place, the application must recognize that this is the piece of the real world which should be augmented. It is achieved by pre-defining a particular image which triggers the program and the application starts working. Such an image is called a marker. 

A marker is usually an object or a picture with a lot of corners and edges to simplify the recognition process.

Marker-based applications are used when it is necessary to anchor a digital image to the real world. If the marker is moved or rotated, the same happens with the overlaid digital image. Marker-based applications work very well as a means of introducing the customer to the augmented reality if you want them to start their experience in a particular place. For example, it works excellent in museums and galleries, where exhibits are tagged with markers or serve as markers themselves, and the application shows additional information, 3D images, and other multimedia content.

Advantages of marker-based AR applications:

  • the production is rather simple and doesn’t take much time;
  • the production is relatively cheap;
  • low system requirements to the device;
  • intuitive user interaction.

Unfortunately, no technology works perfectly fine. AR applications based on markers may face some issues. The major one is to keep a marker within the camera range. As long as the user’s device loses the marker, the experience stops and the immersiveness of it disappears, which contradicts the very concept of augmented reality. Another difficulty is to adjust the digital object to the surface in reality. If it is a picture on the wall, it is simple to align a flat object with a flat surface. However, if the app needs to put a ring on the user’s finger, for example, there appears an additional requirement to make it look realistic and fit every person. 

Case study

IKEA, like nobody else, knows how difficult it is to make the right choice. In 2014 they presented their new virtual catalog with a built-in augmented reality solution. The application allowed the customers to try the furniture in their home and see if it fit and looked great. The application was designed as a marker-based one, where the paper catalog served as a trigger. When the user chose a piece of furniture they liked, they had to put the printed catalog in the place they wanted to place a sofa, table or an armchair. The catalog worked as a marker that allowed the application to correctly calculate the scale and accurately depict a piece of furniture in the real-world room. 

Want a tattoo but afraid you won’t like it? An augmented reality application InkHunter allows the hesitant to try on a tattoo on their body. A specific smile drawn on the skin triggers the application which lays the chosen picture on top of the body. The tattoo can be scaled to fit better, but the application itself does a great job of aligning the scetch with the uneven and curving body surface pattern.

What is a markerless AR app?

Obviously, markerless applications do not use markers. So how do the developers make them work? Another name for this type is a location-based or geo-based application. It functions using such technologies as GPS, accelerometer, digital compass and others which help to locate the device position and, accordingly, the digital elements of the augmented reality. However, the most important technology which allows the marker-based application to show amazing accuracy and performance is SLAM — simultaneous localization and mapping technology. 

With its help, the program scans, recognizes the surroundings and maps the place locating its position at the same time. It grants developers an ability not to stick to the same place and to move around without falling out of the experience. The system can recognize some objects, usually flat surfaces, like a table or floor, and use them as a starting point. No additional marker is needed — the program calculates everything itself. There is a good use of it for the tourism industry, for example. As the person approaches some place, the app recognizes it and provides additional information or guide to the next spot. A vivid example is Pokemon Go, where pokemon appeared on the game map as the players approached them.

Advantages of location-based AR apps:

  • more capabilities of application;
  • stable user experience;
  • more ability to interact and move around;
  • no need for printed or drawn markers;
  • more advanced technology.

Although the markerless type is more advanced, it still has some disadvantages as the technology is still developing. The main issue is the resources required for developing such an application. The company will typically spend more time and money on development as compared to the marker-based app. Human resources are also a question of interest, because it may be troublesome to find a qualified engineer to work on the project in a short time. 

On the user’s side, location-based applications may seem more complicated and less intuitive in interacting than marker-based. The user needs to calibrate the app before using and here it follows the next point. Not all devices are capable to properly run such applications as they use complicated algorithms and multiple technologies to provide an impressive experience.

Case study

IKEA again. This time with a more advanced application. In 2017 the company introduced “IKEA Place” — an application to try and fit their furniture in the room. The idea is almost the same as with their earlier solution, although, the realization is very different. IKEA Place works as a markerless application, which does not require any marker to place a piece of furniture. As the camera is pointed at the surface, typically a floor, the program recognizes it and calculates the area to put a sofa in place. It allows the user to see if there is enough space to fit it properly and the customers are able to interact with the image, moving it around to place in the best position. The app is available for both iOS and Android.

Forget about rulers, steel tape, and things like that. With AR applications there is an ability to use a device camera to measure anything: distance, width, height, angles. These applications are numerous but all work a similar way. First, the user calibrates the app to get the most precise results. Then they set a starting point or several points in space to measure in between. 


The choice between the marker-based or location-based AR application highly depends on the goal you set for it. If you are looking for a program which needs to show the user some information anchored to a particular place — that is a marker-based solution. If you want your application to be more advanced with deeper immersion and more interaction — markerless type is your choice.

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