Augmented Reality check - does AR stand a chance?

Sometimes we have to project out and then come back to the present to validate our assumptions. You have to make a forecast not just in terms of technology, but also consumer behaviour, commercial ecosystem, and other factors and then evaluate what the situation would have to be the year prior, then the year prior to that and so on. If you can’t arrive at the present situation in annual backsteps, then either the forecast of ‘what will be’ is wrong, or the timing is wrong (or both).

So does Augmented Reality stand a chance in the near future? Well, I believe it does and that it will be an important part of our lifestyle, but not as most see AR today.

Is AR for computers or for people?

Right now, the most impressive AR demonstrations are on the PC and laptops, but mobile is truly the final destination in my opinion. So, why PC’s in the first place? Well, right now most mobile phones simply aren’t equipped with enough horsepower to do some of the face, image and scene recognition tasks possible on the PC. Some of these applications are fascinating and fun, but are mostly attempts to experiment in making the hard copy page come alive a bit.

In most cases, the same effect can be achieved by clicking on a similar picture on a web page but reality happens all around people, not just at their desk where the computer is. So, reality must be in a position to be augmented anytime, anyplace. Starting this year, mobile devices are appearing that are up to this task of doing AR properly and a healthy installed base will be in place in the next few years.

Apps Mobility

Content gatherers and applications developers can take it from here with the consumer as their constant and reliable feedback loop. Pioneers of AR technologies can now step back and watch their technology emerge organically inside a broader ecosystem. This is because technology in general has now put the consumer in charge of what he or she can chose to do. That’s why things can and will happen fast, but the concentration now has to be on the personal value that people derive from AR applications not just how clever people get at developing them

AR4Me

The key to mCommerce, in my opinion, has always been (and still is) that the ‘m’ stands, not for ‘mobile’, but for Me. This is the key to success in AR as well. The personal device, currently the  mobile phone, and more importantly, the person carrying it, are the final destinations for the AR value proposition.

Content is still King

Content, applications and databases are now all in place and it will all get better and richer when the end to end ecosystem solidifies a bit. The wisdom will not come from companies. It’s the wisdom of the consumer, 'the‘crowd’, that will define the big head and the long tail of AR applications and content. The key point here is that the content and the structure for AR already exists. All we really need are better end devices, a few more apps and perhaps a faster and more reliable mobile connection wouldn't go a miss either. 

Context is Queen

Location is a context, but it is only one of many triggers and qualifiers that will make AR valuable. It’s the main one today simply because the devices have it to offer. And the databases and applications on tap have geo-tagged info to give. So “Pull AR” (user asks for specific info) is the first stop on the journey, and that is happening now.

But the journey for AR into the future can only happen if info and alerts are triggered not just by location and direction pointing, but scene recognition and by many other factors, stimuli and contexts as well. I’m watching companies like Metaio, Mobile Acuity, Clic2C, and many others who are concentrating on these areas that lie beyond the location context.

Sensors, Sniffers and Peepers

These technologies exist by the hundreds, are very small and could trigger valuable augmentation of the reality of everything from everyday life to special social, medical, safety or job related situations and applications.

Wearable or specially purposed devices and accessories just need to be connected to the web to trigger the right search at the right time. This all changes our relationship with technology and the good news is that there are really no technology barriers! The right information at the right time presented exactly the right way and totally in context is the key. This will hasten the move from “Pull AR” to “Push AR” over the next five years.

Seeing is believing

Beauty (and the value of AR) is in the eyes of the beholder and, even more so than the mobile phone, herein lies its real final destination where people don't need to take out their phone or do something distracting or noticeable to others. And remember, ‘eyeballs’ are one of the key monetisers of content as well, so this is a real 2-way value proposition – the kind that builds new business models.

It’s what you see in the demos that worries me (but not so often in reality) - a person on street with hand outstretched looking at tiny screen and swinging around to see where all the ‘what-evers’ are! The first time this person socks an innocent bystander or worst yet, the wing mirror of a passing bus, the silliness stops!

To succeed in any sector, the user experience must be totally natural, intuitive and somewhat undetectable by others. That means it must find its way to the eyes and ears without getting noticed by anyone but the recipient. The ears part is easy. Most people these days walk around wearing ear buds or Bluetooth headsets to listen to music or be at the ready for that important call. An alert, for example, that informs a hay fever sufferer that the pollen count is getting unusually high and then supplements that with the pollen cloud map with its predicted movements, could be timely and valuable, but a picture is often worth a thousand words, so bringing info into the eyesight is an important capability, if a bit more of a challenge.

The Internet is everywhere, and soon will be in your sunglasses

Futurists predict that contact lenses that act as a visual overlay or immersive displays will appear in 10 to 20 years. I have my doubts. But until then, video eyewear glasses available now from companies like Vuzix, for example, will fit the bill nicely and I am quite aware of technology waiting in the wings from companies like this to enable normal looking fully see-through AR glasses starting in the next year or so. Most of it has already been developed and paid for by the military.

This area has developed rapidly over the past few years at the consumer level and the driver has been the personal viewing of rich content stored on or streaming to mobile phones (web, video, games, etc.). This content has created delight, yet frustration with the small screens, but it has also fuelled an emerging market for personal displays - what I call the ‘Virtually Large, Actually Small’ technologies - large screens in small packages such as Pico projectors, video eyewear, flexible ePaper, etc. So this is also another area where technology is ready to be deployed.

One stumbling block has been the lack of video/TV outputs on phones to feed these VLAS accessories. But as of the end of 2009, 120+ of the most popular mobile phone models of all descriptions and brands now support video out. So the reality check is positive for natural and undetectable augmentation of what travels from the eyes to the brain - when the demand appears, the see-through, eye-centric products will appear. Again, a few technology challenges, but no real barriers. 

Video capable eyewear which creates a virtual large screen experience has the added advantage of potentially being your impromptu entertainment centre home or away - feet up, head back, “opaque mode” please and push the ‘play’ button…Another advantage is that they also happen to be 3D ready as well with screens for each that can house the two perspectives required for the trick to work.

AR will go into hiding

Just when it looks as if it might take off, we may never hear from AR again. Why? Because consumers won’t be wanting, buying or using a service called “AR”. AR will go the way of AI. It'll be taken for granted and never referred to, just part and parcel of most every valuable application used.

Until then, it's all about connecting up the dots. The pulling together of all the technology at our disposal is beginning to happen, but more work and investment is needed. Integration and commercialisation are the last frontiers of Augmented Reality and it's those that ultimately will drive it on.

Ken Blakeslee is Chairman of WebMobility Ventures which is focused on discovery, advisory and investment in innovations in the emerging services convergence areas of Mobile. kblakeslee@webmobility.com 

You can read more of Ken's ideas on 3D and the future of 2015 here on Pocket-lint.



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