A Thesis for Augmented Reality

We are on the cusp of watching something we have been talking about for a while go mainstream in a big way. That thing is Augmented Reality. With Apple’s ARKit and from what I’m hearing a Google ARKit competitor for Android coming soon, these new tools will usher in a new wave of app development and innovation. I’ve stated my point that AR will go mainstream through the smartphone and eventually to other displays. It is the topic of what those other displays may be I want to address today.

Over the weekend, rumors went wild about Apple’s supposed working on multiple form factors for AR glasses. This should come as no shock to anyone since Apple R&D labs likely have prototypes of nearly anything we can dream up. When thinking about the future of augmented reality, everyone seems to assume glasses. It’s possible that is the case. However, I’m willing to bet a plethora of screens in our life will rely heavily on AR, not just one.

One of the initial challenges we will have with AR is the limitations of the human eye to begin with. This became evident when I tried Google Glasses and many others I tried a few months ago at an Augmented Reality conference I attended. In nearly every example, the display presented quite a bit of information on the lenses, which required me to change my eyes focus to the lens in front of me and away from what I was looking at visually. This requires a tremendous amount of energy and the result is I entirely lose my peripheral vision. I’ve seen this as well in some futuristic automobile demonstrations where the windshield in front of you simply displays you information like any screen today instead of overlaying that information onto an object you are looking at like a street sign. There is a huge difference between these two approaches and the latter is key to my thesis on Augmented Reality.

Luke Wroblewski designed a great series on things that make sense to overlay digital information on in an augmented sense. Here are a few images but check out his whole series.

Luke makes clear at the beginning of his post he is making an assumption that AR tech will have eye tracking. Eye tracking is non-existent in every demo today because the technology is not yet militarizable enough to show up in glasses or compact headset. Eye tracking is technology where sensors that are pointed at your eyes can tell what you are looking at with precision. I’ve done a number of eye tracking demo’s in a few R&D labs where a mouse/curser has been modified to point exactly where my eyes go on a display. It is pretty scary how well and precise this works. Once my AR headset knows exactly what I’m looking at it will make it easier to overlay information on the object. This is key in having a user experience that makes sense for AR. As I mentioned, if the display just pops up information and causes me to change my focus it will distract me from the real world vs. enhance it which is the ultimate promise of AR.

In exploring other commercial applications in existence I found this trend applied as well. A few friends of mine in the Air Force confirmed their heads up displays in their helmets never cause them to change their focus on what they are looking at yet overlays the information they need on their target or map, etc. There is also mounting scientific research that displaying information to close to the eye puts significant strain on the eye and can lead early eyesight issues. This is the danger we face if augmented reality displays are treated simply as a display instead of just overlaying information on objects we are looking at in the world.

Beyond Glasses
Part of my thesis on AR goes beyond glasses as well. Glasses may be a key part of the experience since they are the one form factor which will have precise eye tracking, however, during this transition I think transparent displays will play a key role in maturing AR. It is entirely possible our smartphones will have a transparent display before humans embrace glasses as the primary display in their life.

Much science fiction captures this well. If you look at any major science fiction show or movie in the last decade, you will notice all their personal communications devices have transparent displays. They even often hold those displays over an object and use it to gain more information on what they are seeing.

Thanks to AR changing the behavioral paradigm with our smartphones, we will observe humans using this out in the world. We will watch in cities, stores, malls, parks, etc., as people hold their phones up and look through them at something. The upside for glasses is how this new behavior will highlight a pain point of having to hold your phone up in front of your eyes for long periods of time. Glasses will relieve this burden and likely become an attractive solution at some point in the distant future.

Like all new things, this technology is going to take time to go mainstream. Humans do not change behavior quickly, and they adopt new technologies very slowly. When I told someone I thought the adoption timeline would be more like ten years between the tech maturing, prices dropping, and humans embracing new behaviors they were shocked at how long the time line seemed. But I reminded them that HDTV took ten years to become fully adopted by the masses. To my knowledge, there have been few more technologically and visually compelling things in the last 15 years than HDTV to the masses, and it still took 10 years. So my timeline could actually be aggressive rather than conservative.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

8 thoughts on “A Thesis for Augmented Reality”

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