Of all the tech buzzwords this year, the greatest one is ‘augmented reality’ or ‘AR’. AR has the potential to change the way we view the world on a fundamental level—supplementing our natural perception with supportive information, ranging from the didactic to entertaining. What this means is that our computing needs can become seamlessly intertwined with our day-to-day experience in the real world. Rather than looking at a computer monitor or a mobile application for information, imagine being part of it through the lens of your eyewear.
Google Glass was perhaps the first major commercial foray and flop into AR. A Forbes article suggests the key reason it failed, despite a number of innovative capabilities and applications, was due to a failure in marketing.[i] Consumers were not shown what problems it solved, enough differentiation or improvement, a cooler accessory than a regular pair of glasses or shades, or what it could really do as a development platform. Perhaps it was the first-mover disadvantage or curse? Whatever the reason, Google pulled the project even though it was leading the wearable frontier.
Would a marketing campaign showing the power of hands-free computing been more effective, as this was a feature not readily available on other devices? Instead, Google Glass ads highlighted the mundane like video conferencing and a Siri-like assistant, both of which were already widely available on any smartphone. Another theory suggests that it failed due to physical eye strain during initial use cases, although it seems unlikely that adapting to such advanced technology would be completely stress-free.[ii] Many users reported that the strain abated over time, but enough to deter its full-scale launch? Maybe it was first mover disadvantage and they succumbed to the classic mistake of quitting too soon? To get first mover advantage you have to earn it and then fight for it.
AR is actually much more potent and significant in terms of human capabilities than is currently recognized. Among its many uses, it can support a safer driving experience, display a wealth of information about your field of view, and guide assembly, repair and surgery. In driving and piloting of vehicles and aircraft, AR displays can show instrument information directly on the windscreen, preventing distraction from the route.[iii] AR can basically take any task and make it safer, more informed and more precise via a seamless supplement of relevant information.
There are three core formats of AR: wearable displays, software incorporated into other devices, and projected displays. Head-mounted displays fall under the first type, like the patent portfolio recently developed at University of Central Florida (UCF). This technology portfolio integrates improved optoelectronics and eye tracking into HMD technology, and can upgrade the visual prowess of an AR system. UCF’s HMD portfolio was acquired by Tekcapital, which is seeking to commercialize it with companies involved in wearable peripherals. An example of the second format is the ultra-popular Pokémon GO game where AR is incorporated into an existing device and meshes the game’s user interface with the actual environment. Projected displays such as the windshield-display instruments aforementioned fall under the final type. All three formats offer highly-optimized user experiences compared to their traditional, non-AR counterparts, and show how AR can be incorporated into existing systems as well as being a dedicated device.
The commercial potential of AR is being exploited by content creators as well as engineers. For instance, Adobe’s new AR/VR technology is being marketed toward content creators who can place dynamic ads in immersive worlds.[iv] This will allow companies to market their products in ways previously impossible, such as the incorporation of holographic images, or even entire immersive experiences.
Augmented reality is a powerful yet evolutionary concept—one that can fundamentally change the way we interact with the world. It’s as if the real world can now track through the internet, and vice-versa. What’s next? Human dna will transform into virtual pixels? AR can effortlessly quantify our lives into data, while immersing us in information that will potentially enrich everything we do.