I may have caught a glimpse the future in Santa Clara. I just attended the Augmented World Expo (AWE) conference. The conference covers virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR) and augmented reality (AR), but the focus here is mostly on augmented and mixed reality. The goal of these technologies is to create a seamless bridge between the real world and the virtual for a whole variety of applications. While this goal hasn’t been met just yet, I got a distinct sense that these technologies represent a new future of computing.
This year’s conference was almost double in size from last years. This year had a strong focus on tools and technology, and was aimed squarely at developers and other people on the cutting edge. These are the people who are creating the killer apps that will make this technology more and more appealing to the masses. Those terrific applications will probably show up in the next few. Everything from manufacturing to retail to entertainment to architecture is covered. The potential uses for this technology casts a similarly wide net, and there are a lot of great applications just waiting to be created.
Many at the conference are predicting this technology can become as big as desktop and mobile computing. This is because AR allows you to create a “heads up” display that you can overlay on the world. A repairman can have an exploded view of your car’s transmission superimposed over the real thing so he knows exactly how to take it apart and fix it. Instead of glancing down to your phone to get directions, you’ll see them superimposed on your view of the street. An interior designer may be able to stand in an empty room and furnish it virtually. A surgeon might overlay the MRI scan of your knee over the real thing to see what’s inside before committing to surgery.
While some of these applications may not be real just yet, most are at least on the horizon. You’ll see a lot of early adoption in industrial and manufacturing applications, where the initial cost can be amortized. Consumer applications are probably a little further out simply because it will take a while to get the hardware to an affordable price point with enough application support to make it viable.
Augmented and Mixed comes in many flavors, from a simple Pokemon Go-like app on your phone to a full-on head mounted display (HMD) complete with cameras and positional tracking. For HMDs to really take off, they need to be light and unobtrusive, as well as display high quality images with a wide field of view. At the trade show, a fair amount of the booths contained hardware vendors showing various types of HMDs. Some were better than others, but none were perfect or outstanding. The ultimate goal is a seamless overlay of reality and we still have a ways to go with field of view, resolution, and integration with the real world. That said, there were a few standouts.
Meta won an award for Metaworks, a $1000 head mounted AR display that allows for a 90 degree field of view, which is the widest the industry has seen yet. This HMD offers enough resolution and field of view to do actual desktop-like work on an HMD
ODG went in a slightly different direction by showing smart glasses that look pretty much like regular glasses (and don’t make you look like a member of Daft Punk). The R7 and R8 glasses are powered by a mobile Snapdragon processor and should offer a variety of application, from heads-up displays for sports such as cycling, to entertainment and commercial applications.
Kopin is not so much a headset manufacturer, but a manufacturer of displays. They had an absolutely tiny 4K display that can be used in both glasses and head mounted displays. For such a tiny screen, it really has great fidelity
Microsoft had two big booths and a room set up to experience the Hololens with a variety of different applications. They were also showing new hardware from a variety of manufacturers for their mixed reality platform, which is coming in a few months. Microsoft really is going full bore into this area and their Windows 10 platform is set to become a standard.
The software shown and covered at the trade show was more on the technical side. It was primarily aimed at creators who are making content and applications for the new technology. As I mentioned previously, the “killer apps” for AR will be showing up in the next few years.
Unity is being used by a lot of developers to create VR/MR/AR content. They were showing their AR Toolkit for augmented reality. This aligns a virtual camera in Unity to a real-world camera, such as a smartphone or webcam. This can be great for smartphone-based AR applications as well as for platforms such as Google’s Tango.
Vuforia is making a lot of headway into the AR development market with their suite of tools. Vuforia has the tools to recognize and track visual targets in real time. This goes way beyond camera matching in that it can actually “see” certain types of objects, which is great for manufacturing applications. Vuforia can also align virtual objects with real objects, so you can "stick" or align virtual objects to real ones. It supports a wide array of devices, from smartphones to HMDs, and also can integrate with Unity.
Scope AR is another AR development kit that is moving beyond smartphones into head mounted displays such as the Hololens. Scope builds tools which lets people see CAD models overlaid on real world objects, giving them the ability to easily see when there’s an issue while also being able to deliver quick fixes.
So, while the future in AR is not quite here, there are certainly a lot of people working on it. In terms of AR applications, expect to see more smartphone-related AR applications in the consumer space. Headsets will make their initial mark in the commercial space for things such as design, manufacturing, and construction. These environments are often very controlled, and make problem solving for features such as image recognition easier. Full-fledged consumer AR will arrive a little later as prices drop and technology improves.