We all live under the same sun. And eventually, we will share the same (AR)-Cloud.
That is re-phrasing the vision of Ori Inbar, a well known AR thought leader. The AR Cloud is, supposedly, the promise that will finally make augmented reality go mainstream. But what is the AR Cloud all about? And: Will there really be one cloud for all of us? Probably not. Here is why I don’t think there will be one cloud for us all.
It’s not about searching. It’s about finding.
If you are wondering what the AR Cloud is all about, think back 20 years: Do you remember when “search” revolutionized how we use the internet? That is exactly what the AR Cloud is supposed to do: It will again fundamentally change the way we organize information.
Think of the AR Cloud as the evolution of search: most people look for things on the go. Instead of phrasing a request into a search engine and receiving some text back, the AR Cloud will get us the visual information we need — by putting our camera right on the spot with any device. Imagine you are traveling, arriving at a very busy bus terminal and you simply have to point your phone at a bus to find out where it is going to. The information will be displayed right above the bus. The next time you arrive at your Airbnb and while you hold your camera to the coffee machine, you instantly learn how it works and where to find coffee capsules. It’s all about receiving the right information in the right context at the right time — without even asking.
It´s about sharing
“The world is about to be painted with data. Every place. Every person. Everything.”, says author Charly Fink in his latest Forbes article about this all-embracing invisible data layer that is going to be revealed by our phone cameras.
And there is even more to the concept of AR Cloud: Ori refers to the status of augmented reality as surfing the web in 1996 — it’s kind of lame if you have to surf with no friends.
Technology sometimes makes us feel as if it would separate us from one another. In the last decade, Facebook & Co put all of this into a social context — technology brought back the power to connect us again in a meaningful way. The same will happen with AR: While AR experiences, as of today, are predominantly single-user experiences, sharing our virtual experiences with others will make all the difference in the future.
I agree with Ori when he says, that this is the next step AR has to take to go mainstream. When I talk about sharing, I do not talk about taking a screenshot or making a video of an augmented experience and showing it to another person. With the AR Cloud in place, we will literally share the actual experience itself with others.
Across time, space and devices
In the video above we see a couple discussing ideas on how to redesign their living room. One can add personal digital input to the scene and simultaneously share that vision with the other device.
As the AR Cloud evolves, we will continue to see people who share their augmented experiences with others — some of them might be right next to each other, just like our couple here. Others might be separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles. No matter the distance, within the AR Cloud the AR experience persists — across space, time and devices, as Ori phrased it. But what does that mean? Let’s break it down and look at these three points in detail:
- Across space: Two people are working on the same thing — but they are not necessarily in the same place. It could be someone trying to fix a wind turbine, but the required expertise of another person is thousands of miles away. Instead of traveling and wasting time as well as money, the expert could be pulled into the situation instantly. Even though in different locations, both can see the same representation of the physical world with all the added digital content. Both can interact with the virtual world they are in. And: both see what the other one is doing remotely.
- Across time: Working together across time zones can cause a lot of tension. With the AR Cloud, one continues to work on the problem, while the other person who was pulled in remotely gets some rest. By leaving sticky notes and instructions, nothing gets lost. Knowledge is being saved. The next morning, the situation may be reloaded. The other person sees the notes and gets an instant idea of what has happened while he was away. The work process continues smoothly.
- Across devices: It should not really matter what device you are using. The experience you are working on should always look the same, no matter which operating system your device is powering. Obviously, this is not a priority for most vendors in the AR market. Apple stuff works fine on iPhones and while Google is incorporating ARKit to their offering, none of them offer true cross-platform experiences. This is a crucial piece of making AR Cloud happen at all.
What do we need to bridge space and time?
So far we are good at making an AR experience happen across devices — it is a reality and can be done today. Let’s take #3 off the list.
What do we need to make an AR experience bridge time and space as well? Three things must happen:
#1 The AR Cloud needs to understand the real world as good as it gets. The result will be a soft copy of the real world — a digital twin of our surroundings. Any augmented content may be placed into the virtual copy of the real world.
#2 It must be able to localize your device within this soft copy of the real world in a highly precise manner. Technologies like GPS or indoor-localization can’t pinpoint your location accurately enough so that an immersive experience could work. Visual localization will be the key technology to make this happen — together with the soft copy of the real-world, visual identification will allow sub-centimeter localization as a key element for AR Cloud experiences.
#3 And here comes the key part of the story: finally you need to be able to save AND then share the experience in real time with others. This is your entry point to transform a solo AR experience into a collaborative one.
Persistence is key
If we want to go social, we need to make the AR-experience stay. Even though you might move away from an object or even leave a situation entirely — you can save it and reload later, at any time, anywhere and with any device. Persistence is the basis that will allow us to share and easily team up with others to solve problems — no matter where they are.
The idea of the AR Cloud obviously requires that your device will seamlessly track all of your environment. All of it. It must recognize your bedroom as well as the museum right in front of you. But here is the issue: I am pretty sure that there are things happening in your living room or any other private space, that you do not want to share with the rest of the world. Let alone, upload it to a public AR Cloud provider, so that everyone can search it.
A big part of our lives is just not supposed to be taken out into public (hello Facebook privacy scandal). I am afraid not too many people will be excited about sharing an image of their living rooms with the AR Cloud.
Thinking of enterprises, this issue is more than relevant in this context as well: sensitive company data will not be something that will be uploaded to some AR Cloud easily. Already now some enterprises have corporate rules in place that forbid the use of public mapping services, as they are afraid that company secrets could be leaked. A recent example is the tracking data from Strava, that revealed sensitive information from military operations.
That is why I don’t believe there will be just one single huge AR Cloud for all of us. The capabilities of the concept of AR Cloud are useful for many applications and use-cases. But, many of them will not be captured by an AR Cloud that only maps the public world and offers that as the ground plane for AR experiences.
Instead, something different will happen: I believe that a number of private micro-clouds will emerge. Micro-clouds that can be used between you and me, within a group of friends or within the restricted environment of an enterprise cloud. They don’t even have to live very long but can be used for ad-hoc meetings and sharing sessions.
I believe the idea behind AR Cloud is BIG. And I believe all things that come with it will fundamentally shift how we consume information. But I don’t see us sharing information with anybody, all the time. Instead, many micro-clouds will emerge and will help us share, save and collaborate spontaneously — as laid out previously, also even across time, space and devices. This will be similar to today’s app usage. None of us is using just a single app to satisfy all our needs, but many apps — on average a single person has more than 70 apps installed and uses more than 30 each month.
By saving, loading and sharing an augmented experience, AR finally becomes what it promised to be since its beginning: a technology that will overcome all known limitations of time and space. But it is even more than that: it will unleash unknown human capabilities by finally merging the real world with the digital one.