Moving Toward Our Augmented Future

on January 20, 2017
Reading Time: 4 minutes

This week, I attended the first-ever AR in Action conference at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where an extensive list of current (and likely future) tech luminaries talked about the past, present, and future of Augmented Reality. There are plenty of skeptics who doubt the viability of AR and Hollywood-produced visions of the technology set an awfully high bar. I’ve long felt AR will become a crucial technology; after spending time with this group, I’m even more convinced of this. It is not a matter of if, but when.

John Werner, known for the TEDxBeaconStreet events in Boston, orchestrated AR in Action so that the talks, panels, and demonstrations were all short and highly targeted. As a result, in the span of two days, I saw more than a dozen current and emerging use cases for AR, from both the academic and corporate worlds. There was much discussion about the potential ramifications of AR across numerous industries and there were many technology demonstrations. Finally, I had the opportunity to test out the segment’s hottest new hardware: the Meta 2 (it did not disappoint).

Frankly, the volume of information I absorbed will take weeks to process, but a few key takeaways follow.

Plenty of Companies are Already Testing AR
Last year I wrote about an IDC survey that showed US IT decision makers were already looking at AR for their business. One of the key platforms for commercial AR is Vuforia, which PTC acquired from Qualcomm in late 2015. During the conference, PTC’s CEO James Heppelmann talked about the intersection of the Internet of Things and AR and noted that PTC now has thousands of customers in active pilots of AR technology, primarily on smartphones and tablets. PTC also says more than 250,000 developers are using Vuforia. During day two, PTC’s Mike Campbell showed how to create a working piece of AR software—tied to real world object (in this case, a coffee maker)—in the span of about 15 minutes.

A Few Organizations are Moving Beyond Pilots
Patrick Ryan, the engineering manager at Newport News Shipbuilding, discussed the rollout of AR at his 130-year old company. At present, the firm has completed over 60 AR industrial projects and it is currently working on the rollout of permanent shipbuilding process changes using AR. On stage, Ryan showed a video and talked about using AR to facilitate such seemingly mundane tasks as painting a ship. Mind you, we’re talking about painting aircraft carriers. NNS workers are using AR on connected tablets to visualize parts of the ship before they’re completely built to eliminate errors and decrease waste during the process.

During the discussion on AR in museums, the panel—Giovanni Landi, Rus Gant, and Toshi Hoo—noted museums have been using augmented reality, in the form of audio guided tours, for decades. Many museums have begun experimenting with head-mounted AR to bring staid museum exhibits to life for visitors. Panel members noted that, as the prevalence of mobile AR increases, with more visitors walking in the door with capable devices, the opportunities to utilize the technology will also increase. One of the key ways they expect to use AR in the future is through the digitization of rare objects, which will allow museums to “show” a far larger number of items than can be physically displayed to the public.

AR is More Than Just Visual
Numerous speakers talked about the fact there are more ways to augment reality than through visual systems, including auditory and touch. Intel’s Christopher Croteau, GM of Head Worn Products, talked about his company’s product collaboration with Oakley. The Radar Pace is a set of glasses but there is no screen—all interactions occur through voice commands and audio feedback. The glasses, introduced in October, provide real-time feedback for runners and cyclists without visually distracting them. In addition to a spirited talk on the potential of AR technologies, Croteau also presented Intel’s forecast of the market stretching all the way to 2031. Like most forecasters, Intel sees the near-term opportunity for AR in the enterprise. But, by 2027, it predicts consumer shipments will move ahead of commercial and, four years later, the former will out ship the latter by a 4 to 1 margin.

The Right Interface is Crucial
There was a great deal of discussion about the challenges (and folly) of bringing legacy interaction models to AR but not a lot of consensus on what the right approach should be. One thing is clear: hand tracking and voice technology are both likely to play crucial roles but both have a long way to go before they’re ready for mainstream users. The panel on haptics was also enlightening, with executives from firms such as Ultrahaptics and Tactai discussing the critical role they expect touch to play as AR evolves.

More to Come, Exciting Times
The downside to an event like AR in Action is a person can only attend one track at a time (there were three running concurrently on both days). The upside is event organizers recorded everything, which means, hopefully in the near future, I will get a chance to watch all the tracks I couldn’t attend in person. Just as important, Werner made it clear this was just the first of what he expects to be many meetups of this kind, which I think is a good sign for this nascent but incredibly important market.