The State of Augmented Reality – ARE2012

Last week I attended and spoke at the Wednesday session of ARE2012, the SF Bay Area’s largest conference on augmented reality. This is the 3rd year of the conference and both the maturity of the industry and the cooling of the hype were evident. Attendance was lower than previous years, content was more focused on advertising & marketing examples, and there was a notable absence of platinum sponsors and top-tier enterprise attendees. On the surface this could be read as a general decline of the field but this is not the case.

A few things are happening to ferry augmented reality across the Trough of Disillusionment. This year there were more headset manufacturer’s than ever before. The need for AR to go hand’s-free is becoming more & more evident [my biases]. I saw a handful of new manufacturers I’d never even heard of before. And there they were with fully-functional hardware rendering annotations on transparent surfaces. In order for AR to move from content to utility it has to drive hardware development into HUD’s. Google see’s this as does any other enterprise player in the mobile game. Many of the forward-looking discussions effectively assume a head’s-up experience.

At the algorithmic level, things are moving quickly especially in the domain of edge detection, face tracking, and registration. I saw some really exceptional mapping that overlaid masks on people’s faces in realtime responding to movement & expressions without flickers or registration errors (except for the occasional super-cool New Aesthetic glitch when the map blurred off the user’s face if they moved too quickly). Machine vision is advancing at a strong pace and there was an ongoing thread throughout the conference about the challenges the broader industry faces in moving facial recognition technology into the mobile stack. It’s already there and works but the ethical and civil liberty issues are forcing a welcomes pause in consideration.

Qualcomm was the sole platinum sponsor, promoting its Vuforia AR platform. Sony had a booth showing some AR games (Pong!?) on their Playstation Vita device. But pretty much everyone in the enterprise tier stayed home, back in the labs and product meetings and design reviews, slowly & steadily moving AR into their respective feature stacks. Nokia is doing this, Google of course, Apple has been opening up the camera stream and patenting eyewear, HP is looking at using AR with Autonomy, even Pioneer has a Cyber Navi AR GPS solution. The same players that were underwriting AR conferences in exchange for marketing opportunities and the chance to poach young developers are now integrating the core AR stack into their platforms. This is both good & bad for the industry: good because it will drive standardization and put a lot of money behind innovation; bad because it will rock the world of the Metaio’s & Layar’s who have been tilling this field for years. Typically, as a young technology starts to gain traction and establish value, there follows a great period of consolidation as the big fish eat the little ones. Some succeed, many fall, and a new culture of creators emerges to develop for the winners.

So here we are. Augmented reality is flowing in three streams: Content and marketing grab eyeballs and easy money while conditioning the market to expect these experiences; developers extend the software stack towards real-time pixel-perfect recognition & mapping, enabling the solutions to actually, um, solve problems; and hardware manufacturers labor to bring AR into the many transparent surfaces through which we interact with the world, freeing our hands and augmenting our views with ubiquitous networked data. Across these domains sit content shops, emerging start-ups, the leading innovators ala Layar & Metaio, and the big fish enterprise companies that have had a piece of the tech game for years & years and aren’t going to miss out if AR goes supernova. The market is a bit shaky and very much uncertain for the SMB’s but it’s certainly maturing with the technology.

My sense is that everybody gets that AR is here to stay and has deep intrinsic value to the future of mobility and interface. How this will impact the many passionate folks curating & cultivating the field from the bottom-up remains to be seen.

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