The global market for augmented reality (AR) apps and devices, which place digital objects into the real world, is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 152% between 2019 and 2024, according to Mordor Intelligence.
There aren't many public "pure plays" on the AR market, but plenty of companies offer varying degrees of exposure to AR technologies and devices. Let's take a look at three AR stocks you should consider buying right now: Himax Technologies (HIMX 0.56%), Qualcomm (QCOM -0.18%), and Snap (SNAP 0.77%).
1. Himax: The top AR components maker
Himax generates most of its revenue from display driver integrated circuits (ICs) for digital screens. That core business has struggled over the past year due to sluggish sales of TVs, monitors, and mobile devices worldwide.
However, nearly a quarter of Himax's revenue comes from its non-driver business, which produces various liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS), wafer-level optics (WLO), and depth-sensing camera components. All three types of chips play crucial roles in the AR market. LCOS chips use reflective crystals to block light in AR/VR headsets, the WLO process shrinks optical chips, and depth-sensing cameras gauge distances to place digital objects.
Several AR devices -- including Alphabet's (GOOG 0.69%) (GOOGL 0.77%) Google Glass and Microsoft's (MSFT 0.85%) first HoloLens -- use Himax's optical components. Google also notably took a 6% stake in Himax six years ago.
Himax's growth in non-driver revenue decelerated over the past year due to the slower development of AR devices. Google and Microsoft both pivoted Glass and HoloLens toward enterprise niches instead of mainstream users. The widely hyped Magic Leap also flopped due to its poor field of view, lack of compelling applications, and high price tag.
But looking further ahead, Himax's non-driver revenue could climb as more AR devices hit the market. That growth, along with warmer demand for its new touch and display driver integration (TDDI) ICs for phones next year, could help this battered stock -- which trades at less than one times next year's sales -- rebound sharply.
2. Qualcomm: Pivoting from mobile devices to AR headsets
One of Himax's major AR partners is Qualcomm, the world's largest maker of mobile application processors and baseband modems. The two chipmakers teamed up two years ago to develop depth-sensing cameras powered by Qualcomm's Spectra image processors and Himax's structured light module (SLiM) optical components, sensors, and drivers.
Qualcomm's mobile chipsets -- which bundle together a CPU, GPU, and baseband modem in a tiny system on chip (SoC) -- are also well-suited for AR headsets. Qualcomm claims that the "mass adoption of highly mobile, intelligent, always-on AR glasses requires the next level of ubiquitous connectivity solutions," and that it's "uniquely positioned to deliver superior mobile AR at low power."
To reach this market, Qualcomm recently introduced XR2, a 5G-enabled chipset platform specifically designed for AR and VR devices. One of the platform's first partners is Niantic, the creator of Pokémon GO, which will use the chipset in a pair of upcoming AR glasses.
Qualcomm's two core businesses are still struggling. Its chipmaking unit, which generates most of its revenue, still faces tough competition from cheaper rivals like MediaTek and first-party chipmakers like Huawei. Its licensing unit, which generates most of its profits, still faces worldwide complaints and probes regarding its licensing fees.
Nonetheless, Qualcomm's stock looks cheap at less than 15 times forward earnings, and it pays a forward yield of 2.8%. That safety net, along with long-term catalysts like AR chipsets, could set a floor under this stock.
3. Snap: An underdog social network with big AR dreams
Snap still generates nearly all of its revenue from ads on Snapchat. But during last quarter's conference call, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel declared that Snapchat had established "a significant lead in augmented reality," and that "smartphone-based augmented reality will be an important driver" for its long-term growth.
Snapchat's AR ecosystem includes lenses, games, and experiences, which are distributed through its AR Bar and Scan tool. Spiegel claims that each of its 210 million daily active users (DAUs) interacts with AR features "nearly 30 times" every day. Snapchat's community has also created over 600,000 lenses in Lens Studio, and top community lenses are already hitting "billions of views" across its platform.
Snap also continues to sell limited batches of its Spectacles AR glasses, which link to Snapchat and place AR filters on real-world objects with dual cameras. Snap won't generate meaningful revenue from its AR lens or glasses anytime soon, but these new features -- along with Snap's new games, real-time social map, and original videos -- could lock in more users and widen its moat against bigger rivals like Instagram.
Snap's stock isn't cheap at nine times next year's sales, but it still trades below its IPO price as its revenue growth accelerates, its ecosystem expands, and its losses narrow. That's why I personally own shares of Snap and believe the stock could head higher next year.