Last week I spent a few incredibly productive days at the Augmented World Expo (AWE) in Santa Clara, CA in the heart of Silicon Valley, getting a crash course in the current state of Augmented Reality. I wrote about my first impressions here.
The consumer market for AR has already begun with rudimentary filters on social media platforms such as Snapchat. New, enhanced smartphones like Google's Pixel phone vastly expand our ability to combine digital 3D graphics with the physical world and then manipulate them at will, as if they were actually there. While the near-term action will be on the smartphone, the long-term vision of the industry is a head-worn computer that eliminates the need for a screen, solving one of the most vexing problems of modern life.
Spring seems to be the season for conferences. First came Facebook R8, then Google I/O, and AWE last week. This week is the Apple conference. ARinAction at NYU is Tuesday 6/6 and Weds 6/7. The conference is independently organized by John Werner to bring together thought leaders from throughout the industry, academia, and business. Unrelated to his work on the conference, Werner is also Vice President, Strategic Partners, for leading Augmented Reality headset developer,Meta. The presentation I am giving at the ARinAction on Wednesday morning at NYU was greatly influenced by the first ARinAction conference at MIT in January, which shaped my thinking about the field, as did AWE late week.
Meta is a startup funded with 73 million dollars of venture money. Their ambition is to bring to the business and consumer market a mobile head-worn computer for under $1,000 that allows 6 degrees of freedom, and a 90-degree field of view, the widest in the industry. The view is three times as wide as the Hololens', for one-third the price. As Reggie Watts memorably pointed out at the last ARinAction conference, at MIT in January, most AR HMDs have such a narrow field of view you feel like a knight glaring out a slit in a visor. Meta's is remarkably better.
Ryan Pamplin, Meta's Vice President and Evangelist, gave me a tour of Metaworks, their virtual desktop, which overlays the physical world with your computer's desktop, eliminating the need for a monitor. Meta's outward facing cameras allow you to swipe and paste screens floating in the air all around you. Pamplin told me he has not used a monitor in two weeks and can't imagine going back. Meta won an "Augie Award" for the Best Overall Product at AWE.
Augmented Reality is defined as any combination of digital information and the real world. This can mean anything from simple Snapchat Filters to a headworn computer like the Meta 2 or the Hololens. Augmented Reality (AR) differs from Virtual Reality (AR) because it enhances the physical world with digital content, while VR seeks to replace reality with a completely immersive illusion.
AR's capabilities exist on a spectrum and make use of distinct technologies and methods. Here's how it breaks down:
(1) Military and Business. They are the first adopters who can afford custom made AR applications. The health industry, in particular, will benefit from screen consolidation and the remote experts AR enables. Because of this new technology, innovations like Telesurgery are now possible.
(2) Toolsets for developers of AR apps. It's so early in the development of this technology they're still talking about the tools. Without the tools, no one can make apps for these new classes of devices. In the next year or two, we'll see a wave of apps for new, AR enhanced smartphones. They should hit just when the market starts reaching critical mass in the fall of 2018.
(3) Enhanced apps. The next generation of consumer smartphones like the Pixel and the upcoming Samsung 8 will have an upgraded processor from Qualcomm that can run a version of Android from Google called Tango. The phones have multiple cameras which allow precise tracking, depth perception, and allows multiple users to see the same digital images simultaneously on their devices. This way two players can work together to blast an invading alien army. This technology is called SLAM, simultaneous localization and mapping, which also enables self-driving cars.
(4) Consumer AR. Apps available today include toys like the Merge Cube (on sale early August) and marker based games for your phone like Hologrid Monster, released last year. Zapbox, a $50 cardboard viewer (like Google Cardboard), uses markers, which are paper targets that trigger smartphone apps, to measure distances and obstacles without depth sensing camera. Zapbox even has cardboard handsets, allowing users to manipulate the digital images it creates. The company quips it is "making Magic Leap, magic cheap”. At AWE, Zapbox sold out its inventory of AR devices in a couple of hours. They can be ordered on0line for $30. I tried the Zapbox on the floor of the exhibit hall and was impressed by the wide field of view and their amusing mini-golf game. However, you need to move deliberately, or you'll be subject to the seasick feeling you get when low latency devices lag behind your head movements. Zapbox plans to get third-party app developers to make content for their new device.
(5) Head-worn computers. The first of these are just starting to be introduced into the consumer market. ODG is offering their R-8 in China this fall through a partnership with cellular giant Megu. Through a partnership with Citrix, ODG, like Meta, is able to seamlessly bring the desktop into your field of view.
This flood of new information about the state of AR allows me to paint a more detailed, current and accurate view of the industry. I distilled my observations into my ARinAction powerpoint, which I just posted on Slideshare