Gartner, one of the most trusted market analysis firms in the technology industry, just released it’s 2010 Hype Cycle Special Report. According to their research, augmented reality has entered the Peak of Inflated Expectations and will begin it’s slide down into the Trough of Disillusionment within the next year. To get a more visceral sense of what this means we can see that, again according to Gartner, public virtual worlds are just now at the bottom of the Trough looking for innovations and revenues to claw their way up onto the Slope of Enlightenment, having plummeted with the meteoric rise-and-fall of Second Life. The correlations between the VR curve & the AR curve are not lost on those of us who’ve been tracking both.
Looking at augmented reality it’s clear that much of the hype, especially here in the US, has been driven by the relentless need of marketers to grab eyes in a world of on-rushing novelty, coupled to the embryonic rush of a young developer community trying to prove it can be done. And to the credit of the developers they’ve indeed demonstrated the basic concept and shown that AR works and has a future but much implementation has entered the public marketplace as advertising gimmicks & hokey markups constrained by the limits of this nascent technology. While truly valuable & interesting work is happening in AR, particularly among university researchers, European factories, and the Dutch, the public mind only sees the gimmicks and the hype. As with virtual reality (now subtly re-branded as “virtual worlds” as if they’re embarrassed of those heady days of hope & hype), augmented reality cannot possibly live up to all the expectations set for it in time to meet the immediate gratification needs of the marketplace. Evangelists, pundits, marketers, and advertisers all feed the hype cycle while the developers & strategists keep their heads down toiling to plumb the foundations.
So if we accept that AR will necessarily pass through a PR & financial “Dark Night of the Soul” before reaching enlightenment, what then are the present challenges to the technology? Perhaps the largest barrier is the hardware. Using a cell phone to interrogate your surroundings is clearly of great value but it remains unclear which use cases benefit from rendering the results on the camera stream. Efforts like the Yelp Monocle are fun at first but the novelty quickly becomes overwhelmed by the challenges of the heavy-handed & occluding UI, the human interface (eg having to hold up your phone and “look” through it), and the need to have refined search, sort, and waypoint capabilities. Let’s not forget that the defining mythologies of AR – the sci-fi & cyberpunk visions of our expected futures – show augmented markups drawn heads-up on cool eyewear, in the near-term, and dance off of nanobots directly bonded to the optic stream in the far-term. Hyperbolic perhaps, but a fully-realized augmented reality must be a seamless, minimally intrusive and personally informative overlay on the world. AR will climb The Slope of Enlightenment with the help of a successful heads-up eyewear device capable of attracting significant market adoption. This is a challenge that cannot be met by the AR industry but depends on a Great White Hope like iShades or whatever offering the Jobs juggernaut may extrude in the next 3-5 years.
Hardware aside (there are challenges with cloud latency, GPS accuracy, and battery life, among others), the augmented reality stack has a ways to go before we can get to the type of standardization necessary to draw serious development. The current environment is as expected for such a young domain: balkanized platforms vying to become the first standard and fragmented developers playing with young SDK’s or just building their own kits. There’s a lot of sandboxing and minimal coordination & collaboration. This is one of the reasons public virtual worlds went into decline, in my opinion. When you’re dealing with reality – or it’s virtual approximation – walls tend to present a lot of general problems while offering only a few very select solutions. When architecting augmented reality platforms it should be paramount that the open internet is the core model. AR is simply a way to draw the net out on to the phenomenal world. As such it needs a common set of standards. For example the AR markup object is a fundamental component that will be used by all AR applications. How do you make it searchable, location-aware, federated, and share structured metadata? AR must work to enumerate the taxonomy of it’s architecture & experience models in order to begin working towards best practices & standards (some are already doing this such as the ARML standard proposed by Mobilizy). This is the only way that experience & interface will be broadly adopted and it’s the only way that a large enough development community will emerge to support the industry.
For augmented reality to make it through the Trough of Disillusionment it must formalize & standardize the core components for the visual, blended web. To this end companies like Layar and Metaio would be well-served by establishing strong partnerships and continue working with industry and civic bodies to understand exactly how AR can meet their needs. Likewise, working with the likes of IBM to build a visualization layer for the Smarter Planet. The marketing money will dry up so it’s imperative that the young platform companies collaborate to coordinate the standards under the hood, freeing them up to differentiate by the unique experiences & services they build on top. This may seem inevitable (or impossible, depending on your half-cup disposition) but look at virtual worlds – another technology that might be stronger if there were common standards & open movement across experiences. How Second Life, for example, has survived is by the soft & hard science work of unaffiliated university & corporate researchers trying to push the platform to be more than just a fancy chat experience. (Notably, the present heartbeat of Second Life does not appear to be the result of it’s management efforts.) AR would benefit by seeding this type of humanities and scientific work as much as possible, anchoring the technology in the very real needs of our world. To work on stuff that matters, to crib from Tim O’Reilly.
Gartner has generally been correct in it’s Hype Cycle prognostications. The timeframe is debatable, of course, but the report is instructional, provocative, and often impacts the degree of funding that moves into tech. Virtual worlds are a valuable model for augmented reality. The emergent AR players would do well to study both it’s decline into the Trough and it’s eventual, hopeful rise to enlightenment. The good news (and the freaky news) is that Gartner’s 2010 Hype Cycle indicates that human augmentation & brain computer interface are making headway up the Technology Trigger curve suggesting that both will show significant market presence within 5 years. So it’s likely that the dream of augmented reality will come to be, perhaps carried on the back of these even younger and more ambitious technologies.
For whatever failings or false starts the pundits may heap on augmented reality, it’s just too useful to be left behind. We want to see the world for what it is, rich with data & paths & affinities & memory. Those of us invested in its success would do well to work together to curate it’s passage through the Dark Night of the Hype Cycle.
[UPDATE: Marc Slocum over at O'Reilly RADAR (greatest horizon-scanning name evar!) elicited a very interesting comment from Layar CEO, Raimo van der Klein: "So we don't see AR as virtual Points of Interests around you. We see it as the most impactful mobile content out there." In some ways this challenges my assumption that AR is about visualizing the net & blending it with the hard world.]