Following are my impressions and thoughts inspired by the “AR in Action” conference at MIT’s media lab to which I was kindly invited to this week by John Werner.
“Augmented Reality” is the notion of adding an additional layer of data to our perceived reality. The most popular example for AR, as far as I could tell is Pokemon Go in which the character appear as in our real environment, but as the game was referred to several times during the conference, it is not a real AR since it doesn’t truly interact with the environment, rather than merely use it as a background to present its characters. But this is general idea – have some spectacles or a window (such as tablet) from which one can look at hers or his environment and get more information.
An interesting thought was proposed by Christopher Croteau from Intel that augmentation mustn’t necessarily be visual. It can also be audio – for example a running app that provides you audial coaching is actually augmenting to your running experience. A background music can also be considered as augmentation.
AR’s biggest advantage over VR or the standard way of consuming data is lack of need to disconnect from the presence. Along comes the famous photo of our generation, completely immersed in our mobile devices. completely disconnected from the “now”.
This made me wonder why is it so important to be in the “now”. “now” can be boring (especially now, as I sit in the airport waiting for my flight back home). True, mobile disconnect us for the immediate surrounding people, but then again – what’s wrong with that? Calm down with your “heretic!” calls, I would personally rather talk with someone I care about than someone who just happened to sit next to me, and I’m pretty sure it’s to the preferred choice of all parties involved. If someone prefers his virtual friends over your presence – I guess you’re just not interesting enough. I don’t really think that but I think it’s a thought worth exploring. but how AR can make this better? after all, I will still use technology to talk to my virtual friends and not the present next to me. The only difference will be that I will stare into nothingness like a weirdo instead of a screen.
The conference had plenty of speakers. More than a 100, according to the publications. Some of them preached to the choir about the wonderful potential of AR; others showed their work whether it was related to AR or not (some even without even trying to conceal the fact it’s completely unrelated. I should mention that it doesn’t mean their talks were bad, just unrelated). But from what I gathered, AR has three usages nowadays: (i) Show designs (e.g. architecture‘s work); (ii) provide instructions; and (iii) be cool. Being cool – such as provide 3D Pop-up to QR-code. It’s cool. it’s great advertisement. But being cool is something that has to be unique and it’ll become over-used and boring incredibly fast.
As the AR field is still emerging, the conference was also about VR, which is actually easier to implement, as you don’t need to understand the real environment in which the user is present. But VR has a huge disadvantage – it completely disconnect you from the surrounding. As one of the speaker came to the stage with a holo-sense on, I felt that he’s not really there, and didn’t really see a reason to be “there” as well. I think it has a lot to do with the emotional expression we provide using our eyes and eyebrows and once this is covered – we will just lose our audience.
Robert Scoble spoke about the “beautiful potential” of AR and how it will change our future. He pointed out three scenarios – mall-shopping, hotels and drivings. Personally, by the time AR will actually be useful, automated cars should take over (and every day that passes by and people die in car accidents is a disgrace to humanity). I’m not exactly sure what would he change in his hotel experience but the mall-shopping example bothered me. Especially as I don’t go to malls and I think that “look how much money many can be made of this” is an incredibly bad driver for innovation. It may be efficient but it’s still bad nonetheless.
There were few interesting demos of really useful AR in use for instructions and tutorials. But it reminded me of the story about NASA’s 10m$ investment to invent a pen that can write in zero gravity while the soviets simply used a pencil. It’s ok to experiment with the technology even when it’s not efficient but in order to solve real-world solution, its advantages compared to a low-tech solutions don’t necessarily have enough ROI.
Christopher Grayson suggested using AR to remember names (essentially by providing them digital “name” tags) made me think about the right to stay anonymous. This, should be mentioned one of the important reasons google glass failed. It’s true that I walked in the conference with my name tag on but this is actually an incredibly inefficient technique as it requires the reader to stand in front of me and make sure the tag isn’t flipped over (as it usually does) or covered by my jacket. Most like I’ll know that s/he’s taking interest of me and I would feel less susceptible to scams by a stranger who knows too much about me.
He took pride in having more than 2000 friends on Linkedin, while socially-speaking, we’re able to maintain only up to 1500 friends. I think it requires a redefinition for the word “friend” as it raises the question of the type of relationship one keep with his closest thousand of friends.
A word on technicalities. There were a few talks that were… ill-prepared. Whether it was the technology failing to display the presentation or demo on the big screen, or speaker who clearly didn’t prepare their talk and just rumbled on. Worse were those who weren’t even interested or at least funny. Rightfully said, it was mentioned by the organizers that future conference they’ll “audition” the speakers, so I’m optimistic on that regard.
I didn’t attend any panels but one, which I happened to stumble by as I was waiting for the following talk. This panel was about “Future of AR” and each panelist in his own words said, to my dismay, that the future cannot be predicted. They later continued to rumble but for me the picture was clear that the future is hazy. Personally I think the future of AR lies with an incredible smart AI and image recognition and processing. It will then be able to whisper useful information to help you make conscious decisions. In its evolution AR must and I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is – MUST get rid of the clunky VR goggles, it will never work with them. The alternative should be either the use of normal plain glasses and which the user’s pupils are still visible or at contact lenses that provide this information. Yes, we have a lot way to go, but that’s the future AR should aspire to.
A few honorable mentions: Bob Metclafe (the guy who invented Ethernet) and Dan Bricklin (the guy who invented digital spreadsheets), who didn’t actually talk about AR but are incredibly smart and entertaining; Gordon Bing from EA who showed how AR can be inspired by computer games; And last but not least, the guys from PTC that gave a few demos of AR that actually work efficiently.