AWE 2019: AR Is Alive and Well, but Not for Everyone Yet
Augmented World Expo (AWE) is probably the largest and most important trade show and conference dedicated to all things “XR”, but with a heavy emphasis on Augmented Reality solutions (AR). (If you’re not up on the latest terminology check out our VR, AR, and MR explainer article.) AWE 2019 in Santa Clara (10th annual) was bigger than ever, with over 7,000 attendees and 250 exhibitors. But what struck me most was the number of real-world deployment stories spread among the exhibits and conference tracks, contrasted with the fact that most of us never see any evidence of AR technology in our everyday lives.
Industrial and Commercial Usage Is Expanding Dramatically
In previous years, many vendors were showing concept videos coupled with prototype hardware. This year, there was a lot more talk about actual deployments in a variety of industries. As one example, Ubimax has over 250 enterprise customers for its manual-workflow AR solutions. At the show, the company announced it’s adding support for MR using the HoloLens 2, so that workers can read needed documentation (typically PDFs) while they also get the benefits of AR for assisting in their tasks.
AR and VR in the Arcade, If Not in the Home
Volume sales of personal AR and VR devices have been elusive (leaving aside giveaways and AR-ready smartphones). Since multi-player VR gaming only works if everyone you want to play with has a compatible setup, adoption has been slow. One obvious way to work around that is at an arcade, where everyone can be equipped with the appropriate gear.
Just like with popular arcade sports, context is key. When going about our normal business, most of us don’t suddenly think about using AR. For example, every attendee at the conference received an “AR-enabled” messenger bag that paired with the conference app. Once you had it set up, others with the app could point their phone at your bag and see your name and avatar. However, I never saw anyone actually doing it. Personally, I do use the Horizon Explorer AR app on my phone fairly frequently, but that’s about it.
This AR web browser demo from mobile AR glasses maker Rokid is typical of the vision provided by AR and VR vendors, but the reality still doesn’t come anywhere close. It’s promising, though, that the Rokid mobile headset can do full 6DOF tracking on-board, so you can power its experiences with only a smartphone.
All Headsets Are Still Annoying, but Less Than They Used to Be
As usual, there were lots of new headsets, both in product and prototype versions. To be honest, though, none of them made me suddenly want to get out my checkbook. In part that’s because the AR headsets still suffer from a limited field of view, and VR headsets still require compromises between going wireless and quality of experience. Also, because there isn’t a unified app ecosystem (although Microsoft is trying to change that), picking a headset limits you to the content available for it. One promising development is the constantly improving approach to mixed reality. Varjo, for example, announced its XR-1 VR headset with dual 12MP camera that can be used to create a mixed reality experience.
Eye tracking is also becoming more common. Viewpointsystem demoed a slim, 5 ounce, MR headset with integrated eye tracking at the show — although at $4,600, near-term it will only be good for high ROI industrial applications.
Optics Makers Want to Sell Picks and Shovels to the Miners
Remember that old saw about the people who got rich during the gold rush were the ones who sold tools and food to the miners? The same may be true of the XR marketplace. If so, some optics companies will be among the winners. Digilens was at the show announcing that they have invented a plastic waveguide that’s less expensive and lighter than current glass models. I tried a demo unit of their glass version and the resolution was quite good, but the color shading meant it would be more appropriate for B2B applications than for consumers at this point. LetinAR PinMR showed a clever mirror-based approach to reflecting an AR scene into your eyes. I liked the demo quite a bit — their mirrors are essentially invisible because each one is smaller than your pupil — but their technology is still under development, so it’s hard to know what the final product will be able to achieve.
Similarly, AR infrastructure management companies like LanceAR can succeed no matter which hardware and software stack win out. Also on the software side, e-Commerce firm CGTrader introduced ARsenal — a solution for online retailers to create and deploy AR-based shopping systems. ARsenal includes tools for 3D modeling and viewing products in AR, as well as managing and storing 3D models.
What’s Next for AR and MR?
In many ways, the effort to find a “killer app” that will make AR commonplace parallels the race to create a self-driving car. Both achievements seemed just around the corner a couple years ago, and both are turning into a long slog. In both cases, it’s turned out that there is a great deal of value in milestone results along the way. For cars, it’s improved ADAS and navigation systems, and for AR, VR, and MR (I’m dragging my feet on giving up and just saying “XR”), many hundreds of niche applications. The move to wireless offerings, along with better battery life and improved performance, will certainly help those who have a specific need. But I don’t expect broad consumer adoption until there are some breakthrough use cases.