I made the journey from Oakland to Santa Clara to attend the Augmented World Expo (AWE 2013) last week, and enjoyed a day dedicated to the magic of Augmented Reality (AR). AR is a rapidly developing technology that has the potential to be a real game-changer in the development of immersive experiences and entertainment. There was a lot to absorb and discover and I will be sharing some of my personal highlights over the next few posts.
First some background. AR is hardly mainstream; it has only been deployed in a commercial context in the past few years. AWE is only in its 4th year, and the event has an electric air of excitement, novelty, and discovery to it. I attended it last year, and I was surprised and happy to see how much it had grown in terms of attendees and exhibitors since then. At last year’s event, I had been hoping to try a Heads-Up Display (HUD), which is basically a fancy term for futuristic eyewear that allows you to experience the world like Tony Stark or The Terminator.
The development of a high-quality, consumer-grade HUD is the type of holy grail achievement that would have a dramatic, transformative impact on the mainstream engagement with AR. In my opinion, as it’s currently conceived, Google Glass will not provide the type of game-changing, HUD-enabled AR that I am referring to. However, based on the attention that it’s getting, despite the fact that it’s not even for sale yet, it seems clear that this concept is captivating the public’s collective delight, or disgust, depending on your perspective.
To my recollection (and disappointment), there was not a single eyewear exhibitor at the 2012 event. This year though, an entire section of the expo was dedicated to eyewear and the topic of wearable computing was very hot. What a difference a year makes! I made a point of visiting every single eyewear booth, and attempting to try on every single product I could get my hands on. For pure entertainment potential and application, I was most impressed by the Epson Moverio.
Don’t get off your horses just yet — this is not the grail, but it does seem like a step in the right direction. When you look at this image, remember: this represents the best effort from the marketing department of a multi-billion dollar, global corporation to make their product look cool. If they can’t pull it off, it’s probably not there yet. Does he look relaxed in that picture? Actually, he’s just rendered slightly immobile by the sheer weight of the glasses. OK, it’s not quite that bad, but it basically takes quite a bit of hardware to pull off what is otherwise a very impressive experience. The glasses project video content so that it looks like you’re watching a screen from a few feet away. The gear also natively supports 3D content without any additional enhancements or hardware. I could almost, almost look forward to a long airplane flight if I had this handy, which incidentally is probably one of Epson’s most compelling use-cases.
However, the glasses are essentially see-through, so that when you’re not watching any content, you can still see the world around you. Enter AR. Epson has been working closely with interested partners to support the integration of aftermarket components with some impressive results. Rig up a standard-issue webcam and load up a custom application on the Android-powered hardware that ships with the glasses, and you have a very compelling wearable AR solution. In fact, Scope Technologies was exhibiting alongside Epson and was demo’ing an impressive AR-driven training solution that was built on their “hacked” version of the Epson platform. Although I was only watching a monitor of what the glasses were projecting, and was not able to experience it myself, it was a promising glimpse of something real which I’d previously only thought of in conceptual terms.
In general though, this integration was a mess. Cables everywhere. 3rd party accessories mashed into each other and poking out at odd angles. A bit of showmanship and legerdemain to create the illusion of a seamless experience. One developer had to integrate an Android tablet into his setup to provide some missing functionality in the Epson-supplied box. The end result was . . . cosmetically challenged — about the furthest thing you could get from the elegance of an iPhone or the milligram design precision of Google Glass. However, there was a DIY sensibility to it that was driven by the fire of wanting to touch the future NOW, and not when some massive corporation hands it down to us from on high. I loved it!
In Part 2 of my posts about AWE 2013, I talk about some of the smaller exhibitors who are breaking exciting, new ground.Follow @thememelab