Microsoft and Magic Leap are about to turn your world inside out with “mixed reality,” a change that has profound implications for marketers.
When millions of people opened their gifts this holiday season, many unwrapped virtual reality technology — headsets like the Oculus Rift or the Samsung Gear. These fully immersive worlds are already revolutionizing entertainment and gaming.
Something even bigger is on the horizon, though: not virtual reality but mixed reality (also known as “spatial computing”). Using what will eventually become eyeglasses-like computers with high-resolution displays in the lenses, the devices will bring “augmented” reality to every corner of our “real” world. It’s your real world plus computer-generated overlays on the fly.
One of the best-known names in the tech industry, Robert Scoble, has recently co-authored a book on the subject, The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence Change Everything. One review by J.D. Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz and Cruiseable and former Sacramento Bee book editor, describes what is ahead: "It all becomes one seamless, integrated experience where a layer of visual computing (yes, like in a Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick), including virtual characters and objects, is overlaid on top of the real world. Call it Pokémon Go times 100."
“What will this look like?” asks one Wired hands-on review of Microsoft’s mixed-reality HoloLens. The answer: “Well, holograms.” In terms of what you see when you look through them, imagine something like the movies R2D2 projected in Star Wars: you get the illusion of 3D moving objects that are aware of your location and surroundings.
As a recent Forbes article notes, neither a VR game nor Pokémon Go can do what … “mixed reality” does. VR takes you to another place. AR [augmented reality like Pokémon Go] can make a Pikachu appear in your living room. Mixed reality keeps you where you are — and makes that Pikachu come to life.
If mixed-reality glasses sound a little familiar, it’s probably because of the notorious Google Glass — essentially an early prototype from several years ago that never really took off. Before that, Google also tried a product called “Goggles,” with which you pointed your smartphone camera at real-world objects to see added information. But the technological power wasn’t there yet for either of those earlier efforts.
The difference now is that advances in technology have made this vision increasingly plausible and far more complex and interactive than ever before. Today, it’s real. Working, consumer-grade products are about to hit the marketplace.
Microsoft has been a leader in this area with the HoloLens, which still looks a bit like Geordi’s visor from Star Trek: The Next Generation but is certain to slim down quickly. The result, according to that Wired preview?
[The] prototype is amazing. It amplifies the special powers that Kinect [a non-headset-based mixed-reality product] introduced, using a small fraction of the energy. The depth camera has a field of vision that spans 120 by 120 degrees … so it can sense what your hands are doing even when they are nearly outstretched. Sensors flood the device with terabytes of data every second, all managed with an onboard CPU, GPU and first-of-its-kind HPU (holographic processing unit).
Developers can already buy working models of the device.
Getting even more buzz, though, is Magic Leap. The Florida-based company has intrigued the world with its promise of a mixed-reality device unlike any other. Founder Rony Abovitz, in a recent cover story in Forbes, neatly sums up the promise of mixed reality: “It’s hard to think of an area that doesn’t completely change” when mixed reality is brought in, he says.
And despite some questions about the company’s success thus far, the response, according to Forbes, has been tremendous: To date, Magic Leap has raised nearly $1.4 billion in venture capital, including $794 million this past February, reportedly the largest C round in history. Seemingly every blue-chip tech investor has a chunk, including Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, Google, JPMorgan, Fidelity and Alibaba, plus there’s backing from less conventional sources such as Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment, the maker of films like Godzilla and Jurassic World. Magic Leap was valued at $4.5 billion in its latest round of financing.
Magic Leap has even signed on Neal Stephenson, one of the best-known science fiction writers of the past 30 years, as its “chief futurist,” who is said to be working on a game for the platform.
What does this mean for marketers?
Mixed reality means nothing less than a total transformation for the field. You may soon be able to create interactive characters that people choose to bring along with them to concerts, for example. Your customer service reps could potentially inhabit a real-time “avatar” that could show a customer how to operate a product. The possibilities are staggering.
Imagine Google’s AdWords — contextualized advertising — on steroids and you get things like Blippar, which will enable you to search for information just by looking at a real-world object. According to a TechCrunch article, “By making every object ‘blippable’, the company no longer has to grow on a product-by-product basis but can sell advertising space on just about anything.”
As Forbes notes, entertainment is leading the way as it often does, but “Magic Leap sees its greatest impact in business applications, especially medical imaging and retail (imagine ‘trying on’ garments at home, seamlessly).”
Beyond that, we might even see something like the world envisioned by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who inspired Magic Leap’s Abovitz: In his 2006 “Rainbows End,” he sketched a compelling description of the societal impact of augmented reality in which technology evolves to the point where high-resolution displays are integrated into contact lens[es] worn by just about everyone. Combined with powerful lilliputian computers and broadband wireless networks, it becomes possible to customize visual reality by displaying a personalized world by transforming what the wearer is gazing at.
Facebook is already looking hard at bringing virtual reality to social networking (with avatars in Oculus Rift, e.g.), and mixed reality is a natural next step. Throw in things like Google Tango, which maps out rooms and building interiors by computer (imagine a ready-made 3D map of your offices that CGI characters could be aware of), and what you get is a whole new way of looking at the world, one where physical location matters less and less.
I know “revolution” is a noun oft leaned on by many companies, especially those in tech. But, I’m taking an educated gamble that what will happen with mixed reality is nothing short of a revolution that will touch (for better or for worse yet to be seen) every aspect of our lives.
And whenever there is a revolution of platforms — take the printing press, radio, television, the internet, then social media — marketers have new opportunities to engage audiences. Both exciting and unsettling for me is that this time the new platform is the world itself.
We are the platform.
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Ron Watt Jr is Founder + President of Watt + Company LLC (WATT), a communications and marketing agency serving Fortune 500 clients worldwide.