The Future Will be Better Than Augmented Reality on a 2D Phone

There have been several Augmented Reality (AR) announcements by the tech leaders in the news lately. These new releases will enable developers to build phone/tablet apps that place digital objects into your current environment. While this sounds cool in theory, I haven’t come across a demo that makes me believe that the future has people holding up their phones and moving them around a digital object.

Here are two of the major announcements:
Apple announced a SLAM ARKit at WWDC that enables you to place objects on a table as seen in the image below.

Facebook announced an Augmented Reality Camera Platform at F8 with a SLAM library that also allows you to place objects in physical space.

Why is phone based AR trending with all these CEOs? They aren’t crazy, they see a vision where you can bringing a 3D volumetric object into your current environment. This IS the future. The concept of a digital twin that you can drop into physical space to share, move replicate, manipulate is fascinating. When a user can blend physical and digital it’s easy to imagine the number of use cases and experiences that occur in this meta-reality; it alters how we consume information and disrupts industries such as entertainment, education, medicine, media and more. In order for this vision of the future to occur a couple things need to occur.

Volumetric objects need to feel life-like, this means they need to reflect the true scale, depth and movement characteristics. In addition to scale, viewing the object not only requires six degrees of freedom, but also needs to be as natural as moving my head. The combination of scale and natural viewing is best seen today in high-end VR. I’ve had experiences in VR where I go to set something on a table that doesn’t exist and quickly remember it’s not physically real! VR has other limitations but it’s the closest example of what the future of AR is going to be like.

Unfortunately, I have yet to see an AR demo on a 2D display that has the immersive effect it promises. I’ve tested many of the AR apps on the Tango, and I’ve even built a haunted house AR demo in Unity, but it’s just not exciting. As a quick test, I showed the haunted house demo to my 4 year old daughter and it didn’t prompt a reaction. To her it just looked like a flat image on a screen that didn’t do much. She didn’t care about moving the phone around to see the side view of the house at all. After showing her my demo she proceeded to ask if she could play with the Hololense.

Despite this experience, tech CEOs of the most powerful companies getting on stage and talking about phone based AR because they see the revolution that is about to occur with AR glasses. Glasses manufacturers like Meta, Magic Leap, ODG are expected to come to market in late 2017. While I’m sure the initial launch will be an “early version”, this technology is set to revolutionize how we view the world (and the digital objects within it!). These viewing devices will provide the feeling of presence that a user expects, the promise of the future. Interestingly, the SLAM technology used to place digital objects onto the real world is the same for both the phone and the glasses. It doesn’t take a huge leap to see that theses CEOs are prepping for the glasses-based AR future, even-though the demos use a phone.

Until the new glasses come out we are stuck with the hardware we have (Hololense developer kit is out, but the field of view makes it fall short of expectations). While the development community should continue to push the envelope to create engaging applications, it doesn’t mean we should be enamored by a technical achievement without a good use case. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that people care about the backside of a coffee cup or sharks swimming around my cereal bowl. We shouldn’t expect someone to hold their phone up in the air and move it around a 3D object to see different angles of a lamp or a low poly dinosaur. We should call phone base AR for what it is: 3D images on a 2D plane, incrementally more interesting than video, but not the vision of the future.

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