By David Cox
Augmented World Expo to be held from the 1st to the 2nd of June is an extraordinary event that over the past four years I’ve watched grow into a major hub of ideas and activity. Augmented Reality (AR) itself was once a relatively ‘fringe’ notion, the preserve of the research departments of major tech universities, the R&D sections of companies and the basements of serious hackers. In 1998 when I was a visiting scholar at MIT Media Lab, AR & wearables were the kind of thing you would read about in trade journals as the type of technology used by Boeing employees to help them wire fuselages (a use to which they are still put by the way), by ‘cyborgs’ to build communities of advertising-free wireless networks, like Prof. Steve Mann’s students at the University of Toronto, or by, alas, the military.
People that built wearables and who developed AR back then were generally those super advanced researchers and hackers who had the hardware chops to source and build embedded computer components which were very obscure and difficult and expensive to obtain. Thad Starner’s classic Tin Lizzy wearable computer design at MIT was among the first attempts to establish a standard form-factor in the mid-1990s, for example. Such machines needed to the builder to kluge batteries from camcorders and to custom wire these to stacked linux-installed dedicated embedded computers, the sort usually sold to boat builder and light aircraft makers . Wearable computing folks built one-handed chording keyboards and molded these to their hands using special surgical plastics that were heat pliable. The one-off headsets were built from components from other things like video camcorders viewfinders, or ordered from obscure companies who normally only did business with large organizations who ordered amounts like tens and fifties. This stuff was unique, rare, and you needed to be a jack-of-all-trades to do it well. You needed to be obsessed. Today you can buy a wearable computer complete if you look around on ebay for about 500 bucks. Or you can find instructions to make one for half that on instructables.com with a Raspberry Pi or a Lattepanda or a Beagleboard or an Arduino.
Yes, it is all different some twenty two years later. Today, AR has reached into more and more lives by virtue of the simple and total prevalence of the post-iPhone smart device. Tablets, smartphones, smart watches and those small portable embedded computers that you see at the Maker Faire. IP addresses apply to everything it seems today, and even socks and keys and belt buckles might have an RFID tag and a website to monitor its position, telemetry and everything else. Today, the so called IOP (internet of things) is, more than an idea, it is sufficiently widespread a concept to justify its own conferences worldwide and the deployment of a whole new category of IP addressing. The sheer volume of inexpensive Chinese-sourced components and labor, the ability to thus manufacture products on a limited basis close to cost, all point to a new set of realities for the AR and wearable computing world. Hence the explosion in popularity and availability that can justify an event as big and as bold as Augmented World Expo 2016, AR showcase to the world.
I spoke to Ori Inbar last Friday who is the cofounder and executive producer of Augmented World Expo 2016 – Superpowers to the People! convention at the Santa Clara Convention Center this year. AWE2016 promises to attract a record crowd of upwards of 4000 people who will be arriving to see the very latest in augmented reality hardware, ideas software and trends. AWE was actually held in Asia last year in what was the first-ever augmented reality of its type in the region. It showcased many many new startups and companies attracting over 2000 people.
The AWE convention this year in Silicon Valley has taken out double the space for the Santa Clara Convention Center exposition floor and much of that will be focused on what’s known as enterprise end of the market which is the commercial and industrial uses of augmented reality. This is the use of headsets and other devices and software for medical, industrial, and official, large scale big dollar applications.
Architecture firms, the armed services, any group who can buy big and spend big and needs “fleets” of AR units involving groups of people who need data about the building of things, or the viewing of real-time audiovisual data-based phenomena. For example welders who need data about what they are making. Builders who can see instructions about what they are constructing without recourse to paper plans. Doctors who can have data about a patient superimposed over them while doing surgery. Drone pilots who need to see both what the drone sees but all the other information about what the camera is doing onboard. Actual plane pilots who need 3D floating information about flight controls over the view through the cockpit window, “Iron Man” style. These are the ‘enterprise’ buyers; large groups with deep pockets who need lots of units for whole groups of users who also need training in the use of those units.
Then there is the consumer market. That’s really regular people like you and I, the ‘people’ of the convention’s name, who buy AR apps for our phones, or possibly a set of glasses for using lifestyle or productivity software. For this market are firms like Meta who make the famous “Spaceglasses”. In 2012 Meta was a startup, 3D printing its headsets, based then on the high-quality prosumer level “Moverio” glasses by Epson. The distance tracking (enabling the user to appear to be able to ‘pick up’ virtual objects) was done using a modded leapmotion sensor and some very well put together custom software.
Google Glass came and went from the market in the space of several years but as Bruce Sterling, (longtime regular of AWE and its keynote speaker for many years) has noted, Glass was not so much an AR device as an annotated reality system. It popped information above and to the right of the viewer, like as if someone was constantly putting up small virtual post-it notes all the time. There was often little to no relationship between what one was seeing in reality and the information displayed, as is the case with true AR. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it never took off. This and the fact that Google underestimated the reaction the population would have to being video recorded by Glass wearers in such a way that privacy was assumed to not matter. It is likely that more subtle variations on the Glass concept, less intrusive in terms of social relations may well present themselves this year.
Today they have the backing of serious money and are about to put out a computer-connected headset that looks like something like a cross between a futuristic motorcycle visor and a prop from a science fiction movie. It lets people pass glowing 3D objects to each other, scale rotate, pick up those objects. Meta’s aim is to bypass the keyboard and mouse altogether and offer computer users a completely gesture-based system of interface where the 3D data floats hologram style in front of the face and is manipulated by one’s hands.
Another dimension to the consumer Augmented Reality market includes wearable technology such as the fitness wristbands like Fitbit and the Apple Watch category for the ‘quantified self’ idea of personal telemetry. The gadgets for wearable tech and the market for the data associated with these gadgets is enough to justify Target stores having a whole “Wearables” section in their consumer electronics departments now.
Ori Inbar, says that 2016 will be the year in which we see lots of new hardware and software which is “well past the gimmicky stage” that was prevalent several years ago among these we might include the “scan and see” type systems. I’m thinking here of such technologies as or Aurasma and Layar which were simply smartphone enabled apps offering the scanning of printed documents. Today more serious (presumably real-time data-driven) applications will be on offer. I have nothing against Layar and Aurasma, but apart from the ‘pop up some visual data over a printed image’ there is little these apps do that is actual direct use to the consumer that adds value to a life experience. It is not invaluable, in other words.
The Waygo translator tool for example by contrast is a good example of an app which translates Chinese-to-English written language in real time and pops up information about that translation for the user. This is an example of what we might call an ‘active’ AR smartphone app that processes what it sees and provides the user with information that could only take place by means of AR.
Another important development which is on display this year is smart Fabrics. What are smart Fabrics? They are a technology which is on the rise as clothing and apparel converge more and more with smart devices and the cloud. When programmers view a fabric, they often view a busing system for channeling data. Today fabrics can be used as surfaces for display, for input, and even for feedback in the form of pressure to the user as a means of interaction with virtual data. Fabrics that are worn can be bioluminescent, as the threads used to weave the fabrics can have the properties associated with deep sea fish and glowing insects. This is the brave new world of the intersection of biotech with digital media.
Fabrics might well for example serve as foldable, cuttable displays. A fabric could literally be a screen. Its like projecting a movie onto a dress made of movie projection screen material, only there is no projector. The dress is the display. Flaschen Taschen, an LED array screen by the San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge is a good example of this type of development at a relatively low resolution and was ‘all over’ the Maker Faire this year.
A comprehensive demonstration display of smart fabrics will be on show at this year’s Augmented World Expo so anyone attending will be treated to that also. The relationship between augmented reality and virtual reality will also be at the forefront this year.
Its going to be great.
See you there.
Augmented World Expo
1st – 2nd June 2016
Santa Clara Convention Center