In his keynote address at the Augmented World Expo, Ori Inbar, CEO of AugmentedReality.org was confident that smart eyewear would be mainstream by no later than 2023.
But after taking a tour around the expo floor at the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California, it’s clear that the most mature use cases for augmented reality are service and education, especially in the manufacturing and healthcare industries. A few examples on display at the expo were: a training simulator to teach welding skills, a smart helmet to facilitate building maintenance and repairs, and smart glasses for practicing complex medical procedures.
These use cases highlight the value of augmented reality as a means of helping businesses train for and solve challenging problems in a safer, more cost-efficient way. “With a screen, you’re taken away from what you’re doing. To access that information, you have to do all the work. With smart eyewear, there is no work,” said Dan Eisenhardt, General Manager of Intel’s New Devices Group.
However, much of the consumer-oriented smart eyewear exhibited at the Augmented World Expo did just the opposite, displaying windows, videos, diagrams or apps that obscured my natural field of vision. Rather than feeling “smart,” engaging with the content felt clunky and contrived.
Whereas the role of virtual reality as an immersive medium for entertainment is clear, the role of augmented reality is not as self-evident. The potential is huge, but crafting engaging experiences in augmented reality will require much more creativity, development, and innovation.
The expo’s tagline “Superpowers to the people!” thus seems a bit premature, but it makes sense when you think about the forward-looking use cases for augmented reality. Virtual dressing rooms, virtual screens in place of computer monitors, virtual artwork, education content that comes to life – if virtual reality is like a magic portal that can take you into anything imaginable, then augmented reality is like a magic wand that can summon anything imaginable to you.
Investors are looking to put their money behind platforms and ecosystems that can scale and evolve, but no truly dominant players have yet emerged. With Microsoft’s recent announcement of Windows Holographic – an operating system for mixed reality experiences – that time may be on the horizon.
The unveiling of technology like the Meta 2 glasses, which use motion tracking sensors to accurately interpret hand movements, also felt like a step in the right direction. Meron Gribetz, the CEO of Meta, espoused the merits of doing away with unintuitive inputs like the mouse. “The best possible tool we can build for augmented reality is a tool which tells you what to do without explanation. By touching our interfaces directly, we actually understand them a lot more deeply.” The emphasis on designing around intuition and neuroscience is encouraging.
The industrial use cases for AR succeed because they have been designed to address a very specific problem. For now, some of the most compelling consumer applications of augmented reality are those that make use of smartphone cameras and computer vision APIs. Brands and developers are testing, learning, and biding their time until such time as smart eyewear technology improves and dominant platforms and ecosystems emerge.
In a world with over 2 billion smartphone users, a large swathe of the human population already lives a lifestyle “augmented” by access to the internet and social media, but our attachment to technology often comes at the expense of our attention spans and ability to live in the moment. “[Mixed reality] must enhance our capacity for mindful attention.” That’s the First Law of Mixed Reality, coined by John Rousseau of design firm Artefact in an Asimov-inspired presentation.
A well-designed augmented reality experience promises to not only remedy the distraction of technology, but to functionally improve the way we interpret and interact with the world. Both the hardware and software have a long way to go towards that ideal, but the future looks exciting.