Innovation

The Candy Apple Conundrum

I have an IPhone. This is arguably the best phone and mobile device I have ever had my grubby little hands on. Period. No competition. I also have a Macbook Pro. Very nice, expensive, and easy to figure out after a day or two. Nothing special, I’m still more comfortable with the Windows environment.

To be honest, I can’t stand Apple. I hate those self-important narcissistic condescending Mac ads. Really. I want to destroy entire apple orchards because of it.

I do appreciate Apple’s brilliance and unending innovation in terms of user interface and experience, as well as packaging, marketing, and building a rabidly loyal fanbase (don’t bother flaming me again guys, you are wasting your time).

At first glance, the IPhone seems like a super shiny object that does all sorts of wonderful things, and there are loads and loads of interesting applications and content. Yay. The market itself is rapidly growing, the users are the “sweet spot” of users and early adopters, and the app store is a perfectly executed distribution method. Love it. You could even argue that the IPhone has been instrumental (without realizing it) in helping spur interest and momentum in the augmented reality sector.

But I am continually perplexed by Apple’s refusal to open up the undocumented APIs in their SDK to allow augmented reality researchers and developers access to the video stream from the camera. This is a critical element for any type of visual tracking (markers, feature tracking, and markerless tracking). Some people figured some work arounds to make it work with the 2.x version of the SDK which is nice, except that this automatically disqualifies any applications from distribution in the app store. What really kills me though, is that on one hand, Apple made a play for welcoming AR applications with the 3.x version of the SDK, but only provided access to the overlay, while at the same time completely changing where the undocumented API calls were located, further obfuscating things and handicapping all R&D.

Making things worse, and I’ve blogged about this before, is that there is a perception that the IPhone is the only platform worth pursuing for AR. If you aren’t developing for the IPhone, investors, venture capitalists, and the media don’t care and start slamming doors. The reality of the world market is that the IPhone is only a fraction of the entire market share. From a business perspective, development for the IPhone should be a secondary or tertiary effort, with focus on others like Android, Symbian, and WinMobile. Even the IPhone hardware is lacking in features like video in (necessary for external cameras, likely mounted to the frame of glasses or wearable displays), and others.

Nearly everyone I spoke to at ISMAR echoed my sentiments here. We all *want* to develop for the IPhone, and need to if we want to build a business, but we are being forced to consider alternatives. This is unacceptable. Next-generation mobile augmented reality has the potential to DRIVE SALES OF IPHONES, but as long as Apple is blocking work here, there is a huge opportunity for competitors to jump into the fray and court the developer community. If this keeps up, the IPhone will remain as the coolest phone on the block, but someone else will have the ultimate mobile AR platform.

Think about it Apple! Let’s work something out, and soon, so we can get back to the task of advancing the technology and creating some mind-blowing applications.

Call me, mmmkay? I want my candied apple.

Robert

Bad Apple May Sour Early Augmented Reality...

Earlier this year, a group of developers, startups, academics, and others published an open letter to Apple about opening up the IPhone SDK and releasing public APIs to access the live video stream from the camera to enable augmented reality applications. Ironically, Apple filed for a patent the next day for mobile augmented reality which is rather broad and all-encompassing. Apple later announced that it would indeed release new functions in the next version of the SDK, which spurred a flurry of press excitement about hordes of new AR applications that would suddenly appear in September.

The reality though, was that while some functionality was opened, which has made it easy to create “distance” or “directory” AR applications (requiring GPS, accelerometer, compass, and a screen overlay), it did not address the needs outlined in the open letter. Rather, it ignored them completely.

Augmented reality applications that require live video from the camera, like marker based AR that was popular through the first half of 2009 (and still a very viable method), as well as most of the super cool conceptual videos and demos out there (head over to Games Alfresco for examples), are completely locked out. Not only would these applications be immediately banned and not approved for distribution in the app store, the functions and APIs necessary to access the camera are hidden, undocumented, private, and a real pain in the ass to try to work around…even if just to create a working proof of concept for one developer in a garage somewhere.

If this was a matter on the global scale, it wouldn’t be a big deal. The IPhone has barely made a dent in the worldwide market. However, because it is a media darling here in North America, ensorcelling venture capitalists, and resonating amongst the faithful Apple drones, it is nearly impossible for a young augmented reality developer or small startup to get any significant traction trying to raise funds if they are not focusing on the IPhone. This is causing a problem.

Not only has Apple become the very thing they railed against in 1984…a controlling and domineering “big brother” who will not tolerate dissent, true creativity, or openness, but they have a constricting snake’s chokehold on the market. Not only do the execs live in an Ivory Tower, but they are forcing the rest of us to do the same, surrounded by very high walled gardens and orchards with the prettiest apples you have ever seen. However, we are forbidden from tasting that fruit, or making apple pie, or even trying to make some apple cider. If we get too close, the snakes appear with all of their rules and requirements, effectively trapping us. And then we notice how shiny the apples are again, and forget what we were complaining about.

One of two things needs to happen. Either Apple needs to quit screwing us around and make the APIs public so we can get back to the business of innovating and building a new industry, or the respective communities of developers and venture capitalists need to abandon Apple entirely. There are good alternatives out there that may not be as shiny, but are certainly as powerful and definitely more open for us to work with.

I hate to say it, but the only reason my team is bothering to waste time with the IPhone right now is because that is what people think is the validating platform for the whole AR industry. We would be much farther along and creating some mind-blowing AR if we weren’t fending off sour apples, bad worms, and rotten smiles.

You know, there is an opportunity here for someone to create a better hardware platform and completely leapfrog Apple. Mobile AR has a lot of potential and while the IPhone is shiny now, it is certainly not the ultimate mobile device, it is a shadow of what is to come. If Apple stays dominant and keeps things closed, all the cool stuff will be delayed…maybe for years. But if they open things up, or someone puts out a more robust hardware platform (that is competitive on the sexy level) and combines that with something more open and developer friendly, then you will see the industry catch on fire, accelerate, and create some wild experiences and applications. The future doesn’t need to be science fiction any more.

Android is a good candidate here to take the lead and cut Apple off at the knees, but I also wonder what the hell Nokia is doing right now. Their conceptual AR videos are kinda cool, but not always well received? Personally, I think Nokia could be a dark horse that comes out of the gate with something unexpected (they certainly have a large warchest of cash to work with) but they may be hampered by their own internal culture and politics to do something radical (and risky) to knock Apple off the cart.

I dunno. Something needs to change. As consumers we are being cheated out of really cool stuff that many of us want. As developers we are being denied the chance to be creative and innovate in a market that is sadly lacking in fresh ideas. I don’t want more widgets or beer farting apps…I want the next evolution of mobile, media, and ubiquitous computing. And that my friends, is Augmented Reality.

So, in summary, as long as Apple remains greedy and closed off, and the media/money sources out there only have eyes for the IPhone market, innovation and advancement in commercial Augmented Reality will be slowed, handicapped, and stilted as it is forced to restrict itself to the common elements of GPS, compass, and accelerometer.

This isn’t good enough. Open up the SDK Apple.

Augmented Reality Consortium

I’ve been busy! We just formed and launched an augmented reality consortium of eight leading companies focused on AR over at www.arconsortium.org

We will be adding more companies soon, and we will open up membership to individuals that are pioneers in academia, research, application, and theory soon. For now though, we are just focusing on companies and startups.

The future is going to be damned exciting.

Back from Mobile Monday...

Amsterdam. Ahhhh, Amsterdam! After more than 30 years, I returned to the Netherlands. I was a guest speaker at Mobile Monday Amsterdam (#momoams), which was one of the best conferences I have been to in a very long time.

Photo Jöran Maaswinkel (@JeeeM)

Before I start blogging too much about my trip, there are a few things I want to say, clarify, restate, or answer that I didn’t have a good opportunity to do while I was there. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) “The cloud is a lie, the cake is real.” Some people misheard me and thought I said “the cloud is alive”. Well, that may be true after some singularity event (doubtful), but that isn’t what I said or meant to say. I was making a reference to Valve’s Portal game. Blame it on my “Oracle of Delphi” sense of humor.

2) I came down pretty hard on Venture Capitalists during the presentation (for good reason), and I want to make it clear that I was speaking in general terms. There are a number of venture capitalists out there that are really smart, know what they are doing, and aren’t out to screw over entrepreneurs. Of course, the vast majority of VCs ARE like this, but not all of them.

It is up to you to be discerning and figure this out early on in the pitch game. There are some new funds out there trying to rethink the model (I know of one in particular based out of Luxemburg that has an awesome bunch of guys that know what they are talking about). Research and do your homework…you will find the VC diamonds in the rough.

3) I can’t begin to say enough about the organizers and hosts for MoMo. They were wonderful and I felt that they were sincerely dedicated to making sure I had what I needed and I felt welcome. They were amazing. If I had time, I would have stayed a few extra days if only to repeatedly say thank you for the opportunity to speak at a wonderful venue to an interesting crowd of attendees hosted by stellar organizers featuring amazing speakers.

4) If you met me after the presentation and I told you to make sure you added me on linkedin, followed me on twitter, and emailed me, I wasn’t kidding. I’m not good with names and faces after a conference and it is hard for me to remember who is who if I follow up. Better if YOU contact me (soon) and remind me who you are. I am more than happy to chat, give advice, talk about the industry and the tech, or just hang out.

5) Someone asked me why I didn’t talk more about Neogence during my presentation. Usually, when you speak at a conference like this, it is bad form to talk about your own company. It is too easy to go from a presentation that has value to it and change into a slick advertising pitch. Unless I am specifically asked by a conference to talk about the company, I will usually avoid it. If you want to know more about what my startup, Neogence, is doing, feel free to ask (or send vast quantities of money haha).

6) If you had a question that didn’t get asked or answered because of time constraints, EMAIL ME. I’m happy to answer now.

7) I’m very interested in hearing feedback from you about my presentation. What did you like, what did you not like, where did you agree, where did you think I was a nutcase, did anything inspire you or “turn on a light” in a moment of inspiration, or did my dry jokes put you to sleep? Anything you can give me will help me in future presentations and conferences.

I had a lot of time to think on Tuesday morning while driving to Luxembourg (other business), on the train back to Amsterdam that night, and the whole flight back to Raleigh on Wednesday. The other presentations at the conference gave me a lot to think about, and the conversations I had with various people over the duration of the week (I arrived in Amsterdam last Friday) were very mind opening and enlightening. I’m still mulling this over and letting some ideas gestate, but I will be blogging on a number of topics in the near future here. I’m not a very frequent blogger, but expect some new stuff, probably this weekend or early in the week.

All in all, the conference was definitely a highlight of the year for me, and it was an honor meeting the other speakers and meeting everyone that I did. Thank you for a wonderful week and conference. I promise better jokes next time : )

If you want to see my slides and the video of the presentation, you can go here. I highly recommend watching the other presentations as well. Lots of great information, insight, and thinking.

Oh, special thanks to the photographers that made me look good. I don’t have a lot of photos of myself, and the ones that I do have are generally self-portraits. I’m MUCH better taking photos of other people haha.

One last note: Martijin Pannevis rocks for taking the time to find and buy some Kinder Eggs for me. I absolutely loved those things when I was a kid growing up in Germany and I have been craving them for YEARS.

Ahhh, Amsterdam. You guys are all amazing. Thank you for everything.

 

Praevisio: Future Vision

I just put up a massive post on its own section called Augmented Vision and the Decade of Ubiquity.

Here is an excerpt:

2010 to 2020 will become The Decade of Ubiquity. Not only will Level 3 become a reality, but the advent of this will spawn entirely new industries, professions, and hundreds of thousands of jobs. The impact of L3 will be equal to or greater than the effect of the Internet and the Web combined. Nearly every industry will change in some way, and L3 technologies will have a dramatic effect on our day to day lives, jobs, education, entertainment, culture, politics, society, and so on. Even newspapers will evolve and reinvent themselves. Today’s web designers and artists will become holoscape designers…

I wanted this to stand alone as it is a bit too long for a regular blog post (yes, I know I’m normally long-winded anyway), and to make it a bit easier to find (click on the nav bar up top where it says “Future Vision”).

I didn’t edit it much, so it might read like a stream of consciousness. That is ok, as it is meant as a way for me to share what I am thinking and give you a forum for your own replies and thoughts.

I might extend this later with specific examples of augmented reality in the future as it has the potential to be in various industries and fields, but for now, it is what it is.

Enjoy.

Microsoft's Office Labs Future Vision Montage

The guys over at Microsoft Office Labs are earning their paychecks as far as thinking about the future and what we should be looking forward to.

Check out this kick ass video montage (mostly conceptual of course) that addresses the question: “How will emerging technology improve our productivity in the years ahead?” There is quite a bit of augmented reality in here, but also mobile/ubiquitous computing, advanced office applications (better interfaces and visualization) and a host of other neat things.

Notice the total lack of marker patterns and wearable displays? Should we expect contact lens interfaces by 2019? (I’m doubtful on this one).

What do you think?

Check out more info at I Started Something and Venture Beat where I heard about it.

Kweekies!

If you follow my rambling thoughts on this blog, you know that I am very critical and ranty about some things. This is mostly because I expect more, and I’ve been greatly annoyed by what seems to be industry wide apathy, lack of innovation, and very little ambition. I’m tired of old tech being heralded as new and innovative, or something generic and simple paraded around as noble prize worthy. And I really don’t want to hear about how another Facebook widget will change the world or fix the so-called global warming.

Having said that, there are occasions where someone surprises me with an interesting idea, a well-designed product, or something really forward looking. This hasn’t happened for me in a very long time in tech, virtual worlds, or even MMORPGs. But this week, I heard about Kweekies.

Check that out. This, even in it’s early development stage, looks fantastic, slick, original, and fun. I’m not a big fan of markers, but these guys really put some effort and thought into it. And, instead of just looking pretty (I’m sure you have seen dozens of augmented reality demos on youtube with some goofy looking animated creature waving or whatever), Kweekies looks like it has some decent story and gameplay in it. I am actually looking forward to seeing this first hand, and I’d like to send a shout out to the developers. This is arguably one of the best AR demos I’ve seen in a while.

Kudos guys.

[Edit: hat tip to Games Alfresco where I heard about Kweekies]

 

Tech Talk at Virginia Tech

I was invited by the ACM Club at Virginia Tech to be a guest speaker at one of their “Tech Talks” last night.

I was pleasantly surprised by the students and the questions they asked. Very smart bunch and friendly. The campus itself was gorgeous as well. If I ever went back to school, I think that Virginia Tech would find itself at the top of my list for where I’d want to go.

I’m planning on keeping in touch with some of the students, at least the ones that talked to me afterwards and gave me their email address. I hope they take my advice and get a profile up on LinkedIn and start networking as much as they can. It will pay off for them down the road as they advance their careers.

Thank you for having me guys, I had a good time and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Thinking outside of the box is not enough...

…you need to reinvent the box. Bigger, better, faster, stronger.

I talk a lot about massively multiplayer online games, virtual worlds, augmented reality, simulations, social networking, social media, and a variety of related topics, but a lot of what I have to say (or at least what I am thinking about) goes beyond that. This post, for example, is readily targeted at companies in those areas, but also at those working in technology and communications in general. Two years ago, I wrote about the lack of flying cars (we were promised!) and the seeming death of the American creative and innovative spirit.

As Alan Kay said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn’t violate too many of Newton’s Laws!”

The problem, as I see it, is that we have forgotten about inventing the future. If you take a look at the last year or two of venture funding announcements (particularly in the sectors I mentioned) there is a lot of “me too” ventures getting funding. It is almost as if we keep seeing the dealflow centered around what is hot or popular, which in turn floods the market with a lot of very similar products. How many social networks can you name? What about MMORPGs? Casual game companies? Which of them are really innovating or trying to push the envelop? How many of them are nearly identical in features and functionality? How many of them lack any discernable business model other than “get traffic, get acquired”?

Are the “really smart” people finding funding, or is it a matter of doing what someone else is already doing and just knowing the right people? I’m beginning to wonder. A lot of interesting ideas keep coming across my radar, but they all seem to have difficulty finding any funding at all. At the same time, the number of “what are they thinking” venture deals keep getting announced.

There are a lot of opportunities out there to change the world and make billions at the same time, but I feel like the visionaries and luminaries are hiding or have simply given up. Did the great dot com bubble burst hurt American innovation more than we realize?

I have had my fair share of ideas, most of which seemed to be too “ahead of their time”. It is incredibly frustrating to me to see an idea I couldn’t get funded 5 or 10 years ago (and in some cases, as recently as 3) suddenly find west coast funding and market excitement. Even worse when it seems that the new venture is doing things in a way that feels backwards to me. That’s the best way to describe it I guess…backwards. Why are they doing x THIS way, when it would be so much better and powerful THAT way? 

I’m not about to give up though. As Nikola Tesla said: “The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.” That sounds pretty arrogant I guess, but it resonates with me. Other people in various industries are reigning supreme now, but they are failing to look ahead to the future, and invention is more like “the same thing the other guys are doing, but slightly different”. Throughout my whole career I have tried looking ahead, anticipating the flow of trends and technology, and generating ideas, concepts, and innovations to catalyze, evolve, and revolutionize. They can have the present, but the future is mine.

It can be yours too…but you have to think outside of the box (reinvent it!) and be creative. Don’t hyperfocus on your own area of expertise…talk to others in related fields. Look at the big picture and shuffle the puzzle pieces around. Sometimes we talk about ideas in fiction that have been unreachable for a long time and we act like they still are, but there is a lot of technology out there NOW that simply needs to be put together in a different way to make those dreams a reality.

The future is coming…but only if you invent it, and do it now. Otherwise, we will waste another decade or two toying around with old ideas and old technology. Is it really any wonder that we haven’t returned to the moon or landed on mars yet? That we are still reliant on fossil fuels? It doesn’t have to be this way. Everything can, and will, change…but we need innovators, inventors, dreamers, visionaries, and of course venture capitalists that yearn to change the world instead of playing “keep up with the Jonses”.

Don’t accept mediocrity.