Augmented Reality

AR Fiction: Forensics Simulations and Crime Scene Analysis

She set down her bag and reached up to her glasses, tapping a barely noticeable touch sensitive key at the corner of the frames. A softly glowing heads up display pulsed into existence in front of her, immediately sensing her location in the real world and on the meta-net.

“Initialize.” she commanded. “Voice authentication: Alpha-Zulu-Romeo-Bravo-Zero-Niner-Seven.”

A nondescript male voice spoke in her ear. “Authenticated, Lieutenant Kendra Jackson, Enhanced Sensory Perception, ESPer Team 5”

“Begin scanning, crime scene, domestic, murder.”

Venture Capital and Augmented Reality

Yesterday, Marshall Kilpatrick asked, in readwriteweb.com, “Why aren’t VCs backing Augmented Reality?” He made some interesting observations and I would like to add to those here, with my own comments and thoughts.

First, I’m going to comment a bit on the early stage of the industry and then we get to have some fun and take a look at some of the typical responses I have encountered in my own efforts talking to venture capitalists. Keep in mind that I haven’t done a formal “roadshow”, and I have not engaged in a comprehensive “call everyone you can find” campaign either.

The augmented reality industry is in its infancy, and it is going to need the support, resources, and infrastructure of venture capital to grow into a mature, world-changing industry. I feel like most technology venture capitalists still haven’t heard about augmented reality (you would think that these guys would be watching industry news, twitter, and blogs like hawks looking for new opportunities, wouldn’t you?), or they have already formed an opinion based on stuff that is a year or more old, or that they simply don’t understand the tecnology and the potential of AR. Ok, no problem. We can fix that.

If you are a venture capitalist and are reading this, Please please please, email me or any one else that is active and vocal in this sector and start asking questions. Even if you aren’t interested in AR now, or think that we are all lunatics, call us anyway. I promise you that in a few years you will be kicking yourself if you don’t start learning about this now. Being informed will help you make good investment decisions later on.

Most ventures in the AR space are also extremely young and are either still at the “friends and family” stage, or getting into the “angel” stage. This means, we are too early for VCs. However, startups should be establishing contacts and relationships with VCs NOW, not later, and they should be investing some time to get them up to speed and educated on the technology and the industry. Oh, one quick note…I went back and reread the venturebeat article that broke the story about Layar getting funded. It doesnt say they were funded by venture capitalists, it says “overrun by investors, with 35 offers to date.” That means it is likely mostly angel investors or investor groups and maybe one or more venture capitalists. I suspect, given the amount listed, and that there was still some room, it is primarily angel funding.

Expect to see more announcements of various AR startups clearing the $1M mark (mostly angel sources) and probably one of us will nail a $5M+ deal by June.

I have left Total Immersion (1999) and Metaio (2003) mostly out of the conversation because they have been around for a long time, and certainly aren’t startups. They are established, have been making revenues for a long time, and are generally not focused on the consumer market (although it appears that Metaio is shifting their focus here). It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that one or both has received venture funding in the past, and I expect that they will in the future, but the point of this blog post is the AR startups and the activities (or lack thereof) from the venture capital community.

Anyway, AR tech still has a lot of missing pieces and a few problems that have yet to be solved, but I think these should be characterized as excellent opportunities for a new startup in the sector. And sure, there is plenty of risk, but again, this is an opportunity. I’d venture to say that nearly every AR startup that manages to actually do or build something is going to be a prime acquisition candidate fairly soon once the really big companies start making their move (Microsoft, Google, etc.).

The industry might still be too early for venture capitalists to get into, but the industry is primed to explode any time. I firmly believe that we are getting very close to the same place the internet was right before the explosive growth the world wide web experienced. The startups today in the AR space have the potential to be the next Apple, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, AOL, EBay, Amazon, etc.

You know what would be really useful, is having a group of ambitious and forward looking venture capitalists allocating high risk funds and seeding smart startups with a couple hundred k as matching funds for whatever they can raise from angels. Even $100k or $200k would go a long way, and any ecent entrepreneur can leverage the promise of matching funds to excite the angel community and get some traction. Hell, why isn’t there any stimulus money allocated for seeding technology companies anyway? How many jobs did cash for clunkers create? Think about a $3B injection into high-tech startups… Look at what we did with the Internet. Techpreneurs know how to create a lot of jobs, fast, and high paying ones to boot. Not only that, but we can innovate faster and better than the large corporations that are slow and heavy with bureaucracy. You want better methods to get into space? More efficient and clean transportation? Alternative energy sources? Ways to completely revolutionize media, education, medicine, training, and entertainment? Support the high-tech startup community.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to get off track there. I’m just annoyed at seeing a lot of ideas go up in smoke because of the lack of resources to get anywhere. Back to augmented reality…

The world is changing, and augmented reality has the inherent potential to have an effect on nearly every aspect of our daily lives and the way we communicate with each other, consume media and content, and understand the world around us. Some people think this is all still a dream or wishful thinking, but I’m telling you, the puzzle pieces are there, the various tidbits of different technologies are out there, and we just need to bring it all together. We can do this, and we can do it now.

Don’t give up the fight if you are a startup struggling to get to the next milestone or in desperation for a little funding. Your time is coming and you will be part of a revolution in technology, media, and culture. Hang in there. The tidal wave is coming and you are all getting positioned to ride it. Sure there are going to be a few thousand companies doing something or other with or in AR in five or ten years, but for those of us doing it now, we are the pioneers. Many researchers, scientists, and innovators have gone before us and laid the groundwork, or created the base technologies, and now it is our job to take the baton and run the next leg of the race, which is commercializing the technology and making it useful, practical and pretty damn awesome. The future is ours to make, but we can’t do it alone. The VC community needs to step up and help us with funding, as well as provide other intangibles (experience, insight, etc.) and help us grow a whole new industry.

So, let’s do this. Yes, we are “too early” for them in many regards, but we are also “just right” in other areas that they are beginning to wake up to. Focus on angel funding, but be building those VC relationships and contacts now. Help them understand the potential of the technology and the business models that are likely the ways we are going to monetize this. Cultivate now, reap later.

Good luck.

While some of my comments next may seem critical, they absolutely are and meant to be. However, this is not representative of the whole VC sector. There are a lot of stellar and fantastic venture capitalists out there, that not only bring resources to a company, but also a lot of insight, wisdom, experience, and relationships.

And now, for your amusement and edification:

The top 12 things I’ve heard from VCs when pitching augmented reality in 2008 and 2009.

1) “I’m sorry, we don’t do games”

You would be amazed at how many times I have heard this. The second you say “3D”, “Social”, or “virtual” anything, you get pigeonholed as a game, and no one does games anymore. This even happened to me once after I explicitely stated we were focused on technology and building a platform, not content or specific applications.

2) “You are too early for us”

This is to be expected. The usual method is: your money, your friends and family’s money, angel money, and then venture funding. In the AR sector right now, with very few exceptions (like Total Immersion and Metaio) everyone is generally very young as a company, and only experiencing any real market traction within the last six to nine months (or less). However, the thing that just kills me, are VCs that have “seed stage” or “early stage” plastered all over their website, or that like to brag about deals in the past where some young valley entrepreneurs had an idea on a napkin and they funded them on the spot. Every last one of these that I have talked to have effectively said they are only doing “first round” deals, and only if another VC is leading the round building a syndicate. Seriously guys, put that on your website so I don’t waste time calling you.

3) “Keep us posted”

Anyone who has been through the VC process will tell you that these guys are loathe to say no. They don’t want to say no and miss out on a huge opportunity later. Entrepreneurs want a quick and decisive yes or no. We don’t have the time or energy to jump through hoops to amuse you (I’ve met a few people that enjoyed playing the role of a VC without any real intention of investing), and the longer you string us along, the harder it is for us to build a company. If you aren’t interested, tell me right off, and then tell me why. Then give me the chance to come back later and revisit the opportunity with you. But don’t give me a lukewarm “maybe, keep us posted” answer. That is useless to both of us.

 

4) “We are definitely interested in this area, please keep us in mind after you find a lead VC”

 

Uh, ok. You are interested in the opportunity, but not really, at least unless someone else is interested in it already. Tell me why we should come back and invite you to the party? Thats usually how I feel about this answer, however there are exceptions. Some institutional funds simply do not lead funding deals, and the reasons are legitimate and vary. In some cases, especially with smaller funds, they don’t have the domain expertise or enough staffing to conduct comprehensive due diligence on your startup, or the new industry. This is especially difficult in the case of augmented reality where the industry is barely newborn and there are no benchmarks, metrics, or other data to look at to evaluate a deal, opportunity, or even the industry itself. Any VC putting money in right now has got to have a clear understanding of at least similar sectors (mobile, virtual, social, etc.) and have a forward looking ambition to give birth to an industry (making zillions in the process).

 

5) “What if Google does it first?” (or some other large company)

I really, really, really hate this question. If Google was going to do it, they would have done so already. Since they haven’t, it is a good opportunity for us, because you can bet that at some point they will do it, and gobble up anyone and everything that is competitive or can add to their overall market strategy. I should also point out that Google is not an AR company, just like it isn’t a concrete company. If it wanted to, sure, it could dominate both. Seriously, think about how much money Google could make if it made a move in the concrete industry. I bet they would make a fortune on construction in China alone.

6) “I haven’t read the business plan you sent me, can you just tell me over the phone?”

I’ve heard it all. Too busy, lots of deals, overbooked with meetings, calling from the golf course, ADD, etc. etc. So let me get this straight. You are making decisions worth millions of dollars, with other people’s money, and you don’t have time to read a business plan or sit in a meeting for longer than 15 minutes. If a startup is just making widgets that are already made by someone else and easily recognizable, this is not a problem. However, with a new technology and a new industry, this is really hard to explain to people in the span of a few minutes. I’ve seen people “get it” in five minutes after seeing a youtube video or two, and others take a good hour before the proverbial light bulb goes off. So much about augmented reality is new and there arent many good frames of reference or context for it. I had one guy argue with me for a good half an hour that AR absolutely could NOT be done without expensive and large laser projecters installed everywhere.

So, note to startups. Invest some money into getting a short 45 second video made that visually explains your elevator pitch, what makes you different, what your target market is, and a conceptual piece showing it all working. That’s about all you are going to get before you are expected to condense a 30 page business plan into ten minutes on the phone.

7) “We would love for you to fly out here and present to us”

Ok, so startups generally are starving for cash, and VCs (who have all the money) want you to fly out to their offices on your dime for the pitch. Ok, fine, I’ll take the risk on this IF I’ve got a clear indication that the VC is really interested, and there is a better than even chance of walking away with a term sheet. However in the past, I’ve been naieve and got suckered. What is even worse, is when you get there, the meeting starts late, not everyone that was supposed to be there is there, then you are rushed through your presentation, you don’t get to finish, they ask some inane questions that show they really have no clue what you are talking about (and no, they still haven’t read the business plan), and then its time to go, we will call you, keep in touch. Oh, also, you are too early for us to do a deal and we only do deals with local startups.

The last time this happened to me, it was at one of the larger VC funds on the west coast and I totally felt violated and robbed after the fact. The whole experience left a very bad taste in my mouth.

This is almost as bad as angel groups charging entrepreneurs money for the opportunity to pitch them. Yeah. No kidding. See what Jason Calacanis has to say about THAT. I agree with him by the way.

8) “How is this different from Second Life?”

Yeah. I’ve heard that more than once. Without getting into a long rant about how Second Life is so “1996”, still, or that it is not innovative, a game, or the greatest thing to happen on the Internet (with all due respect for advancing the cause of virtual worlds), this one really gets my panties in a bunch. I can’t even begin to explain where this question comes from, other than mentioning that the next statement I usually get is “we don’t do games”.

9) “We only invest in companies that are local to our offices”

This is why the US is lagging other countries in innovation and technical advancement. Welcome to the global economy guys. You are missing out on phenemonal deals in other regions all over the US in nearly every major population center. People still look at me funny when I tell them I am in Raleigh. If you haven’t heard of the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, you are missing out. IBM, Red Hat, Epic, Glaxo-Wellcome, Red Storm/Ubisoft, Cisco, Duke, NC State, UNC, Wake Forest, SAS, the list goes on and on. You know there are almost FORTY game developers and publishers here? Or that Cary (SE Raleigh) used to have the highest concentration of PhDs per capita in the United States? With some aggressive venture capital movement, RTP could easily become another silicon valley (cheaper, and with prettier trees to boot). Of course, there are other cities with the right ingredients that just need venture infrastructure to kickstart it. There are hundreds of thousands of jobs that could be created in short order if we shifted capital from pooling in the west coast tar pits to other areas.

Anyway, investing locally is a nice idea, but if you feel like a startup has to be so close to a VC for the convenience of monitoring and watching over their shoulders, do you really want to invest in them?

10) “Why can’t you just hire some college students and fund development for yourself? Its easy building a company with under $50k”

Welcome to the “Gen-Y, create a widget in the basement generation”. I don’t care how little money it took to build the first versions of digg.com, twitter.com, or facebook. Good for them. Sure, you can make an iphone app or some other widget on a shoestring and start making money in no time, but if thats the case, why are those guys taking down massive venture deals? What about the other opportunities to build real technology, infrastructure, or innovation of immense value? How many things that could have solved big problems or created a better standard of living for the world have been lost because of lack of resources?

Also, I’m broke. I’ve invested insane amounts of time, energy, and limited resources. I don’t have a trust fund, I haven’t cashed out on an IPO, and no one has given me any stimulus money. Not all entrepreneurs have gobs of cash in the bank to work for free for a year and pay a staff either. Also, you just can’t build some things with under $50k.

11) “How are you going to convert websites into augmented reality?”

Well, we aren’t. If anyone tells you they are, then tell them to have a nice day and move on. The whole point to AR is that is is contextual, locative, and relevant…otherwise, its just a graphical gimmick that adds your webcam video to something 3D without adding any real value. Converting websites is the absolute wrong way to think about it. Rather, think about how you can leverage data on websites for the world around you.

12) And my favorite:

“We are only interested in deals that are close to us, for facebook, running on the iphone, with integrated twitter, already generating revenues, previously funded by founders/angels, has offices with at least 10 people, is willing to change your business model to focus on a different market niche, and we want to put in a new CEO to “take the company to the next level”. Oh, and you have to take these terms, its what everyone else is doing right now”

Yeah. This sounds funny, and over exaggerated, but this is more common than you can imagine. Sure, I’m paraphrasing, and I’m combining several experiences into one here, but the basic point of view and thought behind this one is pretty spot on. Ok, maybe I’m crazy and the outlier in terms of the average experience. If thats the case, then I hope you had a good chuckle. If not, then feel free to comment here with some anecdotal experiences of your own (even if you aren’t an AR startup).

What do you think?

OBEY. FUND US. INVEST IN NEOGENCE. DO IT NOW.

APPLE MUST OPEN VIDEO API. OBEY.

Otherwise Rowdy Roddy Piper will beat you up!

 

Future Vision 2012: Augmented Reality Predictions

Within three years (in time for ISMAR 2012), which is either a very short period of time or an eternity, depending on your point of view, I predict the following:

* 1 Million wearable displays, with transparent lenses, reasonable field of view, integrated accelerometers, and possibly a high-bandwidth short distance wireless connection, sold on the commercial market.

* Market generating more than $1B in revenues

* Vuzix currently the best positioned to deliver technology and products to the commercial market.

* Vuzix, Microvision, and Lumus Optical the current leaders in wearable display technology

* Companies like Sony, Apple, and others will have branded versions of their own. Probably with licensed display tech, or the fruit (ha! apples) of their own R&D.

* There will be at least one terrorist attack that has used mobile augmented reality for planning, practice, and execution.

* Marketing, Advertising, and Entertainment will be the early industry leaders to adopt and monetize augmented reality. More practical uses in visualization, training, education, medical, manufacturing, etc. will follow closely, but take longer for adoption as some technology requirements will be more stringent.

* The problem with visual tracking, registration, and orthorectification will be solved within the next 18 months, if not sooner.

* North America will continue to lag behind Asia and Europe. Early market dominance (in terms of mindshare and branding/exposure) will be led by Europe. Asia (particularly South Korea, Japan, and China) will be the quickest markets to adopt and monetize AR. North America will continue to be insular, inward looking, and still lagging behind.

* In general it will take North American venture capitalists and institutional investors at least another 18 months to wake up and engage fully. In the meantime…

* within the next 12 months, a flurry of augmented reality startups will come out of the woodwork in Silicon Valley, and will likely be overfunded startups looking to make a quick dollar and a fast exit. The majority of these will not have a clear strategy, vision, or technology, and will ultimately die a slow death. The early attempts will be on trying to leverage Web 2.0 and Social Networking into Augmented Reality, but this is backwards. Anyone trying to augment web sites or facebook is missing the point entirely.

* The first major VC funding of a augmented reality startup, of at least $5M USD will occur in the next 6 to 9 months.

* The “big boys” will continue pouring more money into internal projects and R&D, focusing on key technology areas, preferring to acquire companies with a broader focus, market share, and applications.

* By 2011, augmented reality will be a target rich environment for acquisitions, and some of the valuations will be staggering.

* Mobile devices combined with wearable displays will prove to be the ultimate combination for the full potential of augmented reality.

* A huge shift in advertising dollars will have a measurable impact on traditional channels, such as print, broadcast, and web. The mobile device already has broader and deeper market penetration, with more information about the user possible. AR will be the method to leverage this the most.

* In 12-18 months, Governments will begin to wake up to the real benefits, implications, and risks of mass-market mobile augmented reality in terms of national security, defense, intelligence, law enforcement, privacy, intellectual property, and so forth. Questions and concerns we have now with the internet, virtual worlds, and social networking will pale in comparison and are merely foreshadowing the future.

* The IPhone will not be the king of the hill. However, Apple will eventually open up their API and quit stalling AR innovation. I also predict their attempt to patent a grossly broad invention of augmented reality on a mobile device will be rejected, or at least suffer significant paring down.

* Mobile Augmented Reality will likely be a contributing factor to economic recovery with the creation of wealth (revenues), new industries, many new companies and jobs, as well as entirely new professions. Artists, designers, developers, educators, trainers, interior decorators, architects, and others will all find new opportunities and job titles.

* Augmented Reality will possibly be rebranded as something else, likely based on the product name of something. This sort of thing has happened in the past where a product has become synonymous with a brand (Xerox, Kleenex, etc.)

* Augmented Reality content (virtual objects) will be referred to as Holograms by the general public, changing the definition of the word. [Personally, I’d prefer to call them holons]

* Early standards, protocols, and methods of ineroperablity will emerge in the next 12 months, but will be radically different in 36. The “best practice” now is to use off the shelf where possible for speed of development, followed by new ones that are designed from scratch for AR and context, relevance, time, and space (location).

* Also within 36 months, early “holographic” interfaces will be experimented with, the industry will finally develop its own lexicon, and there will be much discussion and prototypes for a system of 3D icons (iconographs?) that will eventually become a visual standard for representing different types of data and information in augmented space.

* Tight registration and body tracking from any angle will also be accomplished, enabling users to anchor 3D objects such as clothing, armor, rabbit ears, masks, and animated textures/tattoos to themselves. The Cosplay, Furry, Trek, D&D, and SCA nerds will spend more money on this than the height of the Magic the Gathering industry.

*Virtual pets will be phenemonally successful and will likely be THE christmas gift in 2012. Due to the glasses, and full visual tracking, users will have a Denno Coil type of experience, where the pets can follow them around, interact with other pets, and do all sorts of fun things. Next-generations of this will evolve into “best friends” which will effectively be intelligent agents with limited voice recognition and a host of functionality. Yes, the porn industry will be all over this. As will the Otaku nerds wanting an anime girlfriend.

* Destination experiences, such as Las Vegas hotels, concert halls, sports stadiums, museums, and so forth will all be highly augmented to some degree or another, starting from content and services tied to the location with useful visualizations, to full-on 3D stuff all over the place. It is questionable at this time whether this will be an amazing experience, or if another few years are needed for better implementation, higher standards and interactivity, and adoption.

* Telcos will be at risk of being marginalized.

* AR in the medical field, both practice and research, will establish itself as useful. It will take more time to become necessary.

* A whole subculture of artists, both traditional and urban (grafitti) will begin to assert itself within 18 to 24 months, experimenting and provoking with hidden AR art.

* Branding wars, over what is linked to the brands of major companies, will begin. Overlays based on image (logo) recognition have the potential to be greatly misused.

* Government use of augmented reality will call many things into question. Of particular concern are submlinal messages or other methods of influencing people based on biometric sensors, and other feedback data, combined with visual and auditory cues and triggers.

* The mobile device will have completely replaced the wallet in some countries, and will begin to make inroads in western countries.

* The vision of Dream Park (albeit in a slightly different manner) will begin to be realized as the technology matures and the game industry embraces the cutting edge of mobile AR.

* Telepresence, using life sized avatars in remote locations, will become useful, and not be a gimmick.

* The mass media will completely FAIL when describing augmented reality.

* Some venture capitalists still won’t get it and will wonder why it takes more than $50k to build a company when you could just create a facebook widget or a basic iphone app for the same amount. Further, they will still think this is all a game because it has 3D in it.

* User generated content will dominate.

* No, still no AR contact lenses. Maybe 2018-2020. No mind reading devices either.

* The first major mass market augmented reality April Fools joke will occur on April 1st, 2012

* It will take longer than 3 years for AR to become ubiquitous in education, medicine, and therapy, although early experimental applications and research will gain a lot of ground.

* There will still be no singularity, neither will the internet become self-aware, although a famous celebrity or politician will take credit for inventing augmented reality.

* Bruce Sterling will likely comment on his blog about what I have written here.

My name will still be Robert Rice, and construction on my evil overlord lair will be nearing completion. All your augmented reality will belong to me. Or google.

 

[* Seriously. You MUST watch Denno Coil. The whole thing. In Japanese with Subtitles. Right now. If you haven’t seen this, you shouldn’t even be in this industry.]

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.

Out of the box: Neogence relaunched

We are beginning to emerge from the box we have been hiding in. I updated the website for Neogence Enterprises last night. It is still a work in progress (I’m sure you will find a few placer graphics or incomplete text), but the bulk is there and working fine. We will be adding to it over the next several weeks, as well as polishing up some other websites that are related (like NIVARS or Mirascape).

The original plan was for us to stay “under the radar” for as long as possible, at least until we had a mind-blowing demo together. Also, we do not want to give any potential competitors too much information about what we are doing this early in the game. Because of the rapid rate of Augmented Reality gaining exposure on the blogosphere and in the public (companies like GE, Toyota, Lego and many others are beginning to embrace AR in marketing), I realized that we need to start getting our name out there. Now is the time to be establishing some brand recognition and cultivate enough exposure to start building a community.

2009 is just the beginning…

MIT's Sixth Sense...what?

Ok, by now you have probably heard about MIT’s Pattie Maes (Fluid Interfaces Group) and her talk at TED last week. The internet has been buzzing about “research aimed at creating a new digital “sixth sense” for humans.

After reading a dozen articles, watching some demo videos, and digging around for more information, I have to admit that I am a little perplexed and less than impressed.

It seems that most of the emphasis in the press here, is NOT about the interface (which is clearly the point of Maes’ research and group) but rather the clunky hardware. The prototype is basically a webcam and a batter-powered 3M projector hung from the neck with a mirror at the bottom to angle the projector’s video onto the wall in front of you or some object. This is connected to a device like a laptop or mobile phone. That is the perplexing part. I don’t see what the big deal is here, but I could point out a dozen things goofy or awkward about it. It should be self evident that a setup like this is counterintuitive and not very fluid. I guess my problem is the projector hanging from the neck. It just strikes me as very limiting and backwards when there are other options for display that would be much easier and useful (hello, wearable displays?).

All that aside, there are some interesting things here. I don’t like wearing having to wear fingertips with different colors, but a gesture-based interface is definitely one of the right things to be researching. We have to break away from keyboards. I’ve seen some hand and finger tracking tech before, so this isn’t quite new (although from some news it is portrayed as such). Other things like accessing data from an RFID, or linking information and data to people and objects is also a step in the right direction.

So, kudos to MIT for trying to think differently and create something for the future. But really, get rid of the projector.

 

Is it too early for Augmented Reality?

Before I answer the question, let me refer you to this chart put out by Gartner this past summer. Notice that Augmented Reality is on the far left with a yellow triangle, which means “more than ten years” before mainstream adoption.

Ok, now I’m not going to argue what mainstream adoption is, as that would require a whole discussion of the Gartner research and a bunch of other stuff. What I will say though, is that I think that it will happen within ten years. The thing that has me thinking though, is the amount of mainstream EXPOSURE augmented reality is getting right now. This could drive (accelerate) mainstream adoption or it could be deleterious and actually handicap the technology so much, that it never reaches the mass market.

I’ve been tracking augmented reality on google, youtube, blogs, university research, and in the corporate world for more than a year now (and I’ve been aware of the concept and tech for much longer), and I can tell you that the exposure curve, or degree of exposure has been gaining a lot of critical mass in the last twelve months. Everyone is talking about AR right now, Microsoft XNA can do AR, the FLARToolkit is AR in Flash, and tons of commercials are starting to come out with AR or “AR like” elements.

Today is the superbowl and rumors are already flying about AR ads from General Electric, Coke, and maybe a few others. You can already find the following examples on the net:

Coke Avatar Ad

General Electric (you can do this at home)

Did I mention these will be showing at the Superbowl? I’m not sure there is any method of reaching out to the mass market at one time than a Superbowl commercial. Now, I’m not saying that this will drive adoption, but I’m saying that this amount of exposure, this early in the technology curve, could either be very good or very very bad.

Why bad? Well, first of all, the great majority of augmented reality is based on using markers or “fiducials” which are essentially printed patterns on paper that are viewed through a video stream, recognized by software, and then cause a 3D object to be displayed on a monitor. This works great for particular uses like the Lego kiosk or conference room presentations, or goofing around in your office. There is a long list of applications, but the real promise and potential of augmented reality isn’t based on these novelty applications…it is in something that is ubiquitious, wireless, mobile, global, pervasive, and connected to everything. As I have said before, Augmented Reality is NOT just about compositing 3D graphics on a video stream. Anyone that believes it is, misses the point entirely.

But anyway, I think back to the very early 90s when virtual reality started getting exposure. I fear that history may repeat itself. The technology was nowhere near ready…the graphics were terrible, the head mounted displays were giant and bulky, the whole thing was slow and caused eye strain, vertigo, and headaches, and the list goes on. However, Hollywood jumped on the idea and was putting out VR movies left and right, and then (the worst thing ever!) the greedy money guys jumped into the game with a lot of overeager, overpromising marketing types.

Virtual Reality obviously didn’t deliver what it promised and it was soon one of those things you didn’t to be associated with. “Virtual Reality” in a business plan meant certain death. Some of the same people weren’t quite satisfied with this and the movement to rebrand it all as “Virtual Worlds” (piggybacking on the early successes of MMORPGs) started developing. Looking back now though, is it any wonder that many of the virtual worlds companies (or the ones using VW tech for military/government/academic “solutions”) are the same seedy guys in suits and the technology has barely moved from where it was in 1995 or 1996? In contrast, the game industry kept moving forward like gangbusters…this is one of the differences between innovation and greed, but I digress.

I predict that Augmented Reality is going to get a massive boost in public mass market exposure in the next six months (starting today). You will see several high profile venture capital deals where an insane amount of money is either going to go to the established players (particularly Total Immersion and Metaio) or some unknown startup with a glitzy exec team, big corps are going to get on the bandwagon or increase their current efforts (IBM, HP, Sony, Nokia, Intel), Universities are going to increase their research programs (there are at least half a dozen great programs out there right now), and floundering virtual world solutions companies are going to attempt to twist/retool their marketing pitches to get a ride too, although they may try using different terms and marketing speak…augmented reality, enhanced reality, mixed reality, etc. I bet Forterra does this, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the UCF Institute of Simulation and Training trying to leverage their facilities as well.

I think that most (not all) of the venture deals in this space are going to be a total waste of funding for the time being. You have to look beyond a pretty business plan, accomplishments in other industries, an experienced executive team, or a demo that your 14 year old son likes. Before you throw any money at a venture deal in the augmented reality space, you better know exactly what you are getting in to. Ask around, pay attention to what bloggers are saying and talking about, read the right sci-fi books (Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling, Vinge, Stross, Niven, etc.). You have got to look AHEAD when considering an investment, not the NOW.

Anyway, Augmented Reality is at risk of getting people excited about the future potential and vision now, while we are still crawling around with basic concepts and marker technology. The industry doesn’t even have a decent lexicon and is generally one giant unexplored area of technology that has not really been trailblazed and pioneered yet. Sure a lot has been done in the last 20 years, but this is still an embryonic market. You can’t get people excited about the Coke: Avatar commercial, or Roku’s Reward, and then deliver this:

I’m just sayin.

If what I predict does happen, Augmented Reality (or at least the thing we are dreaming about) will have to rebrand itself. I already don’t think that “augmented reality” is a great term anyway and we need to find something a little shorter and more direct, but that is just me.

When I get some time, I’ll write another post describing where I think the technology could go and what we should be striving towards creating over the next 5-10 years. The future is very bright and I am extremely optimistic on the potential here. Augmented Reality is a disruptive technology and it will change the way we see the world, interact with media, and communicate, but as with the virtual world and MMORPG industries, there are too many projects and ventures going about it the wrong way (almost backwards in some senses).

Let’s do this right and not get ahead of ourselves. I welcome mass market exposure, new companies, a lot of venture capital activity, and willy-nilly innovation, but I don’t want to see us get mired in poor delivery and over promising. We have to break away from the “novelty” of AR and build something real and world changing.

What do YOU think?

PS Follow me on twitter already. @robertrice

Ugotrade Interview

Tish Shute over at Ugotrade was kind enough to interview me for her latest blog post. It is a long one that covers a lot of ground (not just me blabbing at the mouth). Worth a read. I’d keep up on her blog too. Good stuff and good people.

Follow @ugotrade on twitter while you are at it.

Robert