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Augmented reality, to be sure, has enjoyed its far share of hype – and emerging technology thrives on hype. Problem is not every nascent technology can match its hype. The landscape is littered with spectacular failures like Microsoft Zune, Nokia N-Gage and the hoverboard.
Virtual reality, with all of its hype, is facing some big challenges. After the hype and launches, virtual reality headsets have seen mixed reports and the amount of software releases has slowed. Crunchbase found a significant drop in VR venture capital this year, and there was a lot less VR talk at the Consumer Electronics Show this year than in the past.
However, augmented reality is gaining ground. It’s finding its place, only not where you would immediately think. That’s why according to an IDC study, the augmented reality market will grow from $209 million in 2016 to $49 billion by 2021.
Augmented reality is different from virtual reality in several ways. For starters, you can see the world around you. One of the problems with VR is you wear a headset that completely blocks your view and you could end up falling on your face.
AR, instead, lays over a small computer graphic over your field of vision. Your real world view is augmented by computer imagery for a specific purpose. So you don’t run the risk of serious injury because you can’t see where you are going.
Augmented Reality and 'Real Life Manuals'
Augmented reality has found a solid home in areas like training and repair, where graphics are overlaid on a real life item.
It’s become a popular concept in repairs. Boeing uses it in engine repair, putting guidance for the technician over the parts of the engine to be fixed. Lockheed Martin uses it in building and manufacturing of satellites and space vehicles. GE uses it for repair technicians working on wind turbines.
“The money is in the verticals right now,” said Tim Bajarin, president of the market research firm Creative Strategies. “Vertical markets are willing to pay for it. That’s typical of the software industry. They go where the money is first and tinker around with broader opprtunities for consumers until they find something consumers will pay for. But verticals are where the money is first.”
Rob Enderle, principal analyst for The Enderle Group, adds that the industrial sector is willing to pay the money that a quality headset demands. “The industrial sector will pay good money for a good piece of hardware, whereas the consumer sector is limited for a budget under $500. With the industrial crowd you could sell them $5,000 products and they don’t flinch.”
And that’s only the beginning, predicts Bajarin. “There is an incredible opportunity for people to understand the selling points of real estate, vacations, and tourism. I just think there’s a lot there and we’re at the earliest stages of it. I don’t think we understand the ramifications AR will have on the user interface for a while,” he said.
Enderle said the VR projects, from Oculus Rift on down the line, all focused on being as cheap as possible, and there was no way to make it both cheap and good. “They should start high and work their way down. Apple didn’t bring the iPod out at $75, it brought out the iPod at $500 and worked their way down,” he said.
Google Almost Blows Augmented Reality
One of the first attempts at augmented reality was Google Glass, and it almost killed the whole idea. Glass was a set of glasses with a front facing camera to see what the user saw as well as displays to show information to the wearer.
From the start, Google botched the effort. It made beta testers pay $1,500 for the headsets when typically beta products are supposed to be free. The quality of the software was poor and the Glass itself was considered ugly and unstylish.
Worse, Glass wearers suddenly became villains. People feared being recorded by Glass wearers. Bars in San Francisco and elsewhere banned people from wearing them in the establishment. People were getting beat up for wearing them. Glass wearers were called “Glassholes.” It was a rejection of a technology not seen in years.
“They didn’t focus on making a great experience and reducing the expense. They almost killed AR thanks to Glass. People still have a negative experience because of Google Glass,” said Enderle.
Earlier this year, Google announced a second generation of Glass, with a significant performance and battery upgrade, redesigned to look more stylish and aimed at enterprise users, particularly factory workers where AR is useful in offering information overlays to whatever they are working on. It’s finding a home in places like Boeing, GE and DHL.
Next Step in AR
Bajarin believes that the first phase of AR will be delivered through smartphones or tablets but for that to take off needs googles or glasses and we’re five years away from that. “We want to get to AR headsets to use consistently, and you need a visual pass through where you get the video image put in front of you. You want it to be as seamless of an experience as possible. We are within five years to deliver glasses for AR,” he said.
Enderle thinks AR needs a killer app to achieve mass market, and time. Building the apps for something like airplane engine repair means putting in the data on all the parts of an engine. And then they need the data for the different kinds of engines airlines use (GE, Rolls Royce, etc).
“It’s much like Watson was with IBM. They build it but someone has to train it and the training takes time. AR is in that phase. We have viable hardware solutions and viable software solutions but now we need the data models. The data models are the gating factor,” he said.
And on the consumer side? Both agree that Pokemon Go was a really good example of AR for consumers but there needs to be more like that. And it can’t be limited to smartphones, it needs the headsets. So the quest for a quality, affordable headset continues.