I am back from two remarkable days at the Spar 3D Expo and Conference in Houston. One thing that has stuck in my mind, because it is likely going to impact all of us, is augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality. AR has been around for a very long time, but has been used for very specific and narrow purposes such as training for space missions, has required a heavy iron computing platform, a heavy head harness and heavy lenses, and has been very expensive. Paul Davies of Boeing traced the history of AR including its progress on and off the Gartner hype cycle;
- Innovation trigger 2004-2006, 2008-2009 (dropped altogether in 2007)
- Peak of inflated expectations 2010-2012,
- Trough of disillusionment 2013-2015.
According to the hype cycle, AR is positioned for the slope of enlightenment leading to the plateau of productivity where it starts contributing to solving some of the world's challenges.
David Smith, CTO, Wearality gave a very informed presentation on augmented reality that identified the critical issues that have held up the technology. He made a convincing case for why AR is poised to take off - not on PCs, but on smartphones.
According to Gartner, PC shipments declined by 8.3 % in 4Q2015. Smartphone shipments continue to rise, almost exponentially. Current and future investment in platforms is going into smartphones, not PCs. While AR for PCs will continue to ship, mobile AR will quickly outstrip AR for PCs. With one exception all the technologies that AR requires are available on smartphones. The implication is that the future of mass AR is mobile AR.
You can make the case that there is so much 3D technology and data out there that we have reached the critical mass where we need an inherently 3D platform to take advantage of it. Games led the way, but now construction (BIM), mechanical design, GIS, and other important sectors have moved into 3D in a major way.
Paul Davies of Boeing gave a specific example of an experiment conducted at Boeing where using AR to instruct a worker in the complex process of a wing assembly was found to be much more effective than providing a PDF manual with detailed instructions. The AR process combined real images of the components and the work space with virtual demonstrations in 3D showing the worker which components went where and exactly how to put them in place. The results of the experiment showed that the quality of the worker's first attempt to assemble the wing was much better with the AR instruction and the time she required to assemble the wing was 1/3 faster.
David said that the one technology that is required and is not currently available for mobile AR is lenses. Current lenses have less than a 100 degrees field of view, suffer from chromatic aberration, are out of focus in the peripheral areas, and are much too heavy. Google Cardboard has a small field of view (70 degrees), while HTC Vive and Oculus with 95 degrees are not a lot better. From David's perspective this is the bottleneck that has held up mobile AR.
Now Wearality has developed acrylic lenses that are incredibly light-weight, have a 160 degree field of view when used with a smartphone, enable natural peripheral vision, and are foldable and pocketable. David allowed us to try them attached to a smart phone. The light weight, the wide field of vision and that I could use them with my glasses left me with the experience of IMAX, but without the theatre.
David foresees that even the next smartphone, or possibly the one after that, that you buy will be running AR out of the box. If you have wondered where Michael Jones, of Keyhole and Google Maps fame, has landed, he is now CEO of Wearality, which confirms for me that Wearality is very likely on to something and that all of us with smartphones have AR in our immediate future.