Seeing Past The Hype Of Augmented Reality

This is the seventh edition of my weekly newsletter, Augment Intelligence. Subscribe here for weekly instalments.

In this week’s newsletter, I explore the much-hyped world of Augmented Reality (AR). You may remember in the second edition I examined the emerging Virtual Reality (VR) industry; and in particular the opportunities to build content businesses on VR. Here’s a simple way to understand the difference between the two: VR is a simulated world that is separate from the physical world, whereas AR is a virtual layer on top of the physical world. Perhaps a better name for AR is “Mixed Reality,” because it is a mix of the physical and virtual.

Like VR, the companies poised to revolutionise the world with AR are early stage. Indeed, the most well known AR product so far was a commercial and cultural flop: Google Glass. Although wearers could access information from the Web on the insides of their specs, on the outside the specs looked ridiculous. Wearers soon got the nickname “glassholes,” because the glasses tended to make them ignore the people around them.

But a new generation of AR products is set to take centre stage. The three leading contenders are Magic Leap (co-funded by Google), Microsoft HoloLens, and a new startup that has attracted a huge amount of hype this year: Meta. Before I go any further, an important note: none of those three companies has yet released an actual product. What we do have, so far, is plenty of hype. Check out the Magic Leap homepage, which shows a video of a digital whale leaping out of water. By the amazed reaction of the audience of kids in the video, you might think this was a real demo. But no, that AR whale is as mythical as Moby Dick. The demo was staged.

Even if Magic Leap eventually makes the whale scenario a reality, it won’t be the end game for AR. The real promise of AR is to make it interactive. The key to enabling that is hand-tracking. Have you seen the movie Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise manipulates 3D screens using his hands? Well that’s what Magic Leap, HoloLens and Meta are ultimately trying to build.

Let’s look at Magic Leap first, since it was the first of the big three to gain attention. Magic Leap works by projecting a digital light field directly onto the user’s eye (which is why you can tell the whale video is bogus, since none of the kids have any kind of device over their eyes). We don’t yet know what Magic Leap’s consumer device will look like, but it’s likely to be some kind of glasses or visor. What Magic Leap has revealed so far is a name for its technology — “Mixed Reality Lightfield” — and the development of a “photonics chip” to run it. It has also partnered with creative companies, notably New Zealand’s Weta Workshop (whose co-founder, Richard Taylor, is also a founding director of Magic Leap).

Magic Leap will have to put up or shut up very soon, because a new startup called Meta has burst onto the scene. It too has yet to release a consumer product, despite being onto its second generation device. But Meta has a countdown clock on its homepage (it’s T-minus 6 days at time of writing), indicating that something is coming soon. We do at least know what Meta’s version 2 product looks like, since founder Meron Gribetz showed it off at TED 2016 earlier this month. It looks like a combination between a pair of eye protection goggles and the VISOR that blind helmsman Geordi La Forge wore on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Will that be any more socially acceptable than Google Glass? No. So it’s likely to be mainly used indoors!

Meta has received a remarkable amount of hype this year, including from well known techies such as Robert Scoble and Kevin Kelly. Frankly the hype has been over the top, but it does make me curious to try a Meta device. So I suppose the PR is working.

As for Microsoft HoloLens, the product is showcased on its homepage. It looks like a pair of ski goggles with Bill Gates’ glasses plopped inside them (seriously, there are two screens in this device: a pair of glasses and a visor overlaid). Again, it won’t be something you’ll feel comfortable wearing outside. But judging by the promotional video Microsoft is running for HoleLens, which features a group of fans watching football on TV, HoloLens will be marketed as an entertainment device similar to the Xbox. The video shows the fans gathered around a TV and experiencing AR on a Microsoft Surface placed in front of the TV.

Even though HoloLens has showed its product, it isn’t yet available to consumers. Developers can apply to get their hands on it, but this so-called “holographic computer” won’t be released to consumers for some time yet.

Conclusion

It’s obvious Augmented Reality has a lot of potential, but the closest we have to a consumer level AR product right now is… Google Glass. That may change within the week, depending on what Meta releases (my bet is a developer edition of its new device). But for now, AR is more hype than reality.

That said, when it does arrive AR will be a computing platform to reckon with. It will have a much wider range of use cases than VR, because AR is a part of the physical world and not separate from it. So for example, retailers will implement AR to demo their products in-store. Imagine walking into a clothing store and putting on a pair of the store’s Magic Leap/Meta/HoloLens glasses, and then viewing each item of clothing that catches your eye on a virtual model. Or going into a hardware store and getting a virtual demo of how to use a certain tool (I know I need that kind of education!).

Although we don’t yet have consumer level AR products, the video that Magic Leap released after the whale one indicates that — at the very least — the technology is working. The video, uploaded in October last year, states that it was “shot directly through Magic Leap technology […] without the use of special effects or compositing.” The first part shows a virtual robot under a desk. It wasn’t doing anything other than being cute, but perhaps that’s what a virtual assistant will look like in the future (think an AR version of Apple’s Siri). The second part of the video shows a holographic depiction of our Solar System, showcasing the potential for AR as an educational tool in the classroom.

So we can clearly see the potential of AR. Now we just need to wait till we get to control it with our own hands, like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of the Augment Intelligence newsletter. If you did, please share it on social media and subscribe if you haven’t already. If you’d like to leave a comment, you can do that on the blog post or on my Facebook or Twitter.