ISMAR 09 Observations and Comments

ISMAR, the International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality was held this past week in Orlando Florida. It was pretty awesome and my expectations for the symposium were exceeded in many ways. I had thought that this year was going to be the break-out year, but I’m beginning to think it was only a precursor to the one next year in Seoul Korea. There is so much “on deck” right now that is going to explode out of the box in the next twelve months, that 2010 is going to be freakishly awesome.

ISMAR 09 was a huge success for me, and very exciting. I have been pretty enthused about augmented reality already, but now I am close to vibrating with energy and optimism about the future of the industry, and I absolutely cannot wait until ISMAR 10 next year. Now that I am home (and dead tired) I wanted to put out some observations, comments, and ideas while things are still fresh on my mind, and after I have had a chance to think about it on the plane home. Grab some coffee and have a seat, this is going to be a long post.

And here we go…

It was my first time attending ISMAR, but definitely not my first time attending an industry conference that was inwardly focused (in contrast to something like E3, where it is designed to highlight commercial releases, media frenzy, press releases, and heavily marketing/sales). I mention this to give some perspective to the rest of my comments in this post.

First and foremost, I want to make it clear that the conference was, overall, damn fantastic. I would almost rate it as the best conference I have attended in the last decade, in terms of people I met, the relationships I was able to grow, the things I learned about the state-of-the-art from academic, research, and commercial sources, and the general quality of the attendees and speakers.

I am relatively new to the Augmented Reality industry. While I have been dabbling in different areas of technology that are complementary to AR, or core elements (like 3D graphics, interactive media, etc.) for most of my career, it was only about two years ago that I jumped in head-first and 100%. Even so, I’ve felt like an outsider observing from a distance, with my voice swirling away in the wind. Part of this is due to the fact that my startup, Neogence Enterprises, has largely been under the radar or very quiet about what exactly we are doing to any degree of detail (purposefully), and the other part is because augmented reality is not exactly a new technology, although I would argue that it is a extremely new industry.

By this I mean that augmented reality has been around in some form or another for the better part of the last three or four decades (longer by some counts) and generally limited to research in Universities, limited military and defense applications, and basement R&D at some large companies. There hasn’t been an industry to “break in to” and there are only a handful of Universities where you can find any real educational tracks and research departments doing this stuff. The ISMAR conference itself is old by some standards, with ISMAR 09 being the tenth annual conference.

During 2009, pandora’s box was opened and there were suddenly startups everywhere looking at doing AR applications, content, tools, and so forth. Even a lot of media campaigns started using low level marker based AR to do their marketing stunts. We all started running around with our dreams, plans, ambitions, and in some cases (I’m looking at you mass market media) completely misunderstanding what exactly AR is and babbling on about things that just served to misinform people. From the academic perspective, they were shoved aside for all the brash new folks, who were suddenly getting a lot of attention, accolades, and credit for “inventing” things that others had been working on and researching for years and years.

And ISMAR, which has been a reputable conference for academics, peer-reviewed papers, research, and heavy on the “science and technology”, kindly expanded their program this year in an experiment to embrace “arts and humanities” (which sort of included everything else, like business, design, and whatever).

This is good, and the timing is perfect. Actually, I think this is a must. There is currently no other real augmented reality conference (as the main point of the conference…ones that have an AR track don’t count), and what has been an area of research has suddenly been propelled, abruptly, into the spotlight as an industry (when it is barely more than a lot of academics and a handful of startups). This new “industry” still doesn’t have standard practices and methodologies, a lexicon, standard business models, a professional association, a well formed and active community, or any of the other things that a industry normally has.

This is a bit problematic. Our industry is unique in many respects, and it can’t always be considered in the same way as some other technology related industry. To complicate things, there is a growing demand for products, applications, content, and new innovations…I can’t tell you how many companies, agencies, and whatever have contacted me in the last six months looking for quotes on producing some sort of application or whatever, to be surprised that what they want has to be built from scratch. The mass market doesn’t realize that the vast majority of Augmented Reality technology right now is barely more than a research project at a university. With few exceptions, there is little that is ready for the market. Heck, we can’t all even agree on what the definition of Augmented Reality actually is or is not right now.

This is an opportunity for us, the industry, and ISMAR. Expanding and extending the scope of ISMAR can provide a fertile ground for the continuing birth of the AR industry, and act as a guiding force to mature the technology into a real industry. By doing so, it will grow in relevance, prestige, and legitimacy. If it does not, some other body or organization will fill in the rapidly growing void and eventually marginalize the Symposium, leaving it to the academics to publish their papers and wonder why the industry that could very well be bigger than the Web is today, has left them behind.

While most of my experiences at ISMAR were unbelievably awesome, I did not get the chance to see or experience as much of it as I liked. This is mostly because I was either speaking at one of the sessions myself, or I was engaged in meetings. I think I only caught about half of the sessions I was really interested in. So, I should note now that my opinion, and some of my gripes, are from this limited perspective. I didn’t see everything, so keep that in mind.

Ok, moving on. First, I picked up on a vibe (at the conference, and for a few months leading up to it) that some of the “old guard” was of the opinion that entrepreneurs and other efforts to commercialize AR were nothing more than riff raff, or uneducated blowhards jumping on the bandwagon for a quick buck, without really understanding anything, and probably not capable of doing anything of real value or innovation. I also picked up on some tangible disdain for “arts and humanities” as something that was incapable of measuring up to scientific standards, or even that including it would diminish the prestige and legitimacy of the conference. While I can understand where this is coming from, these points of view are archaic, close-minded, and disillusioned in the face of reality or what goes on in the world in other industries. The “science and technology” of augmented reality is only one element of several that are critical and necessary for the advancement of technology in general, as well as the emergence of a whole industry.

I should note that this seemed to be extremely limited and is not representative of the symposium at large. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The overall atmosphere was very welcoming, open, engaging, appreciative, and willing to grow and expand. Looking over the proceedings and comments from the Chairs, there is a clear desire to grow the Symposium and embrace the industry. This is part of why I think this year was so important, and why I think that ISMAR is going to be an absolutely critical cornerstone for the growth of the industry at large. I only point out that I picked up on the negative vibe (however minor or marginalized) because I think it is important to recognize that these feelings and perceptions do exist, and they should be addressed, lest they cause problems in the future. For example, I heard some rumors about some “disagreements” occuring behind the scenes on the Wikipedia entry for Augmented Reality. Yes, I realize this has absolutely nothing to do with ISMAR, but it is indicitive of a problem that is percolating amongst academics and the commercial sector. This needs to be dealt with immediately. This is the sort of thing that greatly diminishes the credibility and legitimacy of the whole industry at large, and if we let some rampant egos, holier than thou attitudes, or sniping about who is doing (or has done) what, and whatever else, it will have far reaching negative effects. (Note: I have not confirmed this, nor do I know the context of what the problem is between the editors on the wikipedia entry for augmented reality).

I would also like to mention that the startups and commercial people need to be a little more aware about what they are doing and telling the press. Recognition must be given (and indeed, is quite deserved) to those academics, researchers, and innovators that have invested years of their lives to create the base technologies that we are all beginning to capitalize on, and advance in our own right. There would be no AR industry without the pioneers that have gone before us. Even as they embrace us and welcome us into what has been their domain, we must embrace them as well and collaborate with them to advance the technology and the industry as a whole. Doing otherwise would be folly and disrespectful.

Moving on to another topic: The printed proceedings of the conference (totally worth the cost by the way) weighs in at about 300 pages. Only 61 were related to the “arts and humanities” track. While the papers were quite good, and lived up to the expectations of the symposium, I would have liked to see much more in terms of cognition, psychology, sociology, perception, user interface, iconography, filtering, multi-senses, and so forth. Each of these disciplines have much to offer and should be sought after in the future. Maybe “arts and humanities” needs to be renamed or split into other segments, both for papers and for broader topics covered in panels, workshops, and speaker sessions. Maybe science and technology, arts and entertainment, business and media, and design. I had a number of people ask me about business related topics, wishing there was a source for them to learn about starting a tech company, navigating tech transfer and licensing, the patent process, or even collaborating with the commercial sector to support research programs and projects.

Ok, on to my gripes:

1) I got screwed by the person at Marriott who took my reservations and assured me, several times, that I had a room at the Marriott Downtown. Instead they booked me at the Marriott Courtyard. To add insult to injury, I had to pay for parking, when it would have been free if I was staying at the courtyard. The “manager” of the valet parking guys gave me a hard time about it. Never mind the fact that I was a speaker at the conference, or that I was staying AT A MARRIOTT, he wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Very annoying.

2) I had to pay for the boxed lunch (which was weak) and for the awards banquet. I’m annoyed I had to pay for the boxed lunch, but the banquet dinner was mediocre. They served everyone some sort of fish, with mashed potatoes and vegatables, a small salad, one roll, a thin slice of cheesecake, and a glass of water. If you wanted anything else, like a coke, beer, or wine, you had to buy it yourself. They did offer coffee (after the dinner).

3) The wireless was ludicrous. It was free in the center of the lobby downstairs, but something like $10 a day for wireless in the rest of the hotel. The first day after I paid, I had to wait HALF AN HOUR to get a special access code, and then I got a new one every morning. It was also very slow, with frequent disconnects (for me anyway). Extremely annoying.

4) There was plenty of coffee available, but not much water or soda (without going to the gift shop). I was thirsty almost non-stop.

5) Some of the rooms were hot with little air circulation. I almost dozed off in one of my own presentations because of it.

6) Signage and directions on the first day were inadequate. I was waiting for someone in the lobby on Monday morning, and I directed not less than 27 people upstairs to the registration area, after they had wandered off down the wrong corridor because of a sign pointing out where one of the rooms was.

7) While I get the upside down-reverse printing of the proceedings and the schedule to contrast science/technology and arts/humanities, it was annoying to have this occur several times in the schedule. This made it harder to find anything at a glance and was really irritating.

For the price of the conference, none of these annoyances should have occured. As a speaker, I should not have had to worry about any of it, especially since I paid for my own travel and hotel.

I think there could have been a much better venue, and a better arrangement with the hotel. It would have been nice to be closer to a variety of restaurants as well (walking distance).

Pretty lame gripes, I know. But I’m tired and cranky, and they have all been bugging me for days. I needed to blog about it and get it off my chest.

So, that’s it. Overall the conference was fantastic, and the organizers/chairs were amazing. I felt like I was welcomed into the community with open arms where before I had felt like some guy on the periphary. I met a lot of amazing people with a real and sincere passion for augmented reality, and I witnessed a clear vision for the future of ISMAR. My negative comments are limited to very few people and this was based mostly on some casual observations salted by a couple of rumors. Its almost not worth mentioning.

For next year, I highly recommend you start saving and planning now. It will absolutely be worth going to Seoul Korea to attend, and I very highly suggest that you start thinking now about submitting a paper or two. If you are inexperienced at this or aren’t sure how to create one that will bear up to high academic standards, then put a hand out to friends working at Universities for some help. Get off your butt and learn how to do it. Sure, it might take some extra work, but it will pay off in the long run. Quality breeds quality, and mediocrity breeds mediocrity.

I want to thank ISMAR for providing me with the opportunity to participate as a speaker, presenter, panelist, and reviewer (Arts and Humanities). It was a wonderful experience, and I am in awe of many of the people I had the good fortune to meet and spend time with.

See you next year…

Robert Rice