Living the augmented reality

March 2019

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality have long been tipped for mainstream. Technology companies have been hiding in plain sight to get the upper hand for when the battle truly starts. Of the different players in this market it’s no surprise that the platform technology for augmented reality is being led by the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook.

We have previously considered Virtual Reality and what has been driving its rapid growth. The tipping point for VR will be the cost and adoption rate of the hardware and managing the artificiality of the VR headset itself, particularly in service focused field organisations.

Augmented reality has fewer of these challenges.

Augmented reality is blazing a different path

The route to market of augmented reality is somewhat different from virtual reality, even if the end results may be similar. Both VR and AR share so much of the same underlying technology, from hardware to computer vision software and artificial intelligence.

Apple has already built ‘ARKit’ tools into its latest iOS release, which accelerates the coding of augmented reality apps to a common technical standard. For instance, Ikea has now launched a virtual showroom that allows you to see (to accurate scale) exactly how a new piece of furniture would look in your home. Microsoft has its Mixed Reality Capture Studios and Mixed Reality Academy at its Reactor in San Francisco.

Not to be outdone, Google has just opened up its Software Developers Kit for Augmented Reality – ARCore 1.0. It builds on its previous Project Tango platform and was announced in August 2017 before being more widely showcased at Mobile World Congress 2018.

A key component is Google Lens – an app that is designed to bringing up relevant information using visual analysis to detect and identify objects and landmarks and present related information.

At the moment it’s at what I'd call the ‘gimmick’ stage – scanning a flower to tell you its type or creating a contact from a business card, but Google has high hopes for its future use cases.

Google is officially rolling out Lens to all Android phones that have Google Photos installed and is also expected on Apple iOS devices soon. It’s currently available across 100 million phones and planned to grow rapidly with partnerships with Samsung, LG, One Plus 5 and Huawei and others to follow. Google sees Lens as a visual intelligence layer; in its own words:

“The ability to re-skin reality is compelling…but to even create that space you need to know what the semantic meaning is of what you are looking at, and that is why we started Lens…[to put] digital into the real world but we’re attaching semantic meaning to it.”

Aparna Chennapragada, Product Lead of Lens.

Why AR is important for mobile

Whether it’s the mass adoption of VR or new development in AR, it’s important to note that a lot of this innovation is happening on mobile devices. Apple and Google are keen to promote mobile given their focus on smartphones lines. Facebook has been working to integrate AR into its platform including social VR  to integrate AR into its platforms as well (including social VR with Spaces).

At Facebook hundreds of engineers have long been working on underlying technologies like computer vision to allow a smartphone to track facial movements in real time, identify objects or recommend context-specific image effects. Snapchat Lens Studio also has capability to develop ‘world lenses’ – augmented reality filters that bring graphics into the ‘real world’ using the device’s camera.

It's all about numbers

The truth is it’s all about numbers. There are an estimated 82 million VR units in the world but assuming augmented reality capability is currently built out from the smartphone, AR units could hit over three billion. In the words of Facebook:

“The big epiphany is that you can use your phone for AR, and we have about 1.3 billion people who use Facebook on the phone…one hundred times more people have phones than VR headsets. That makes AR really interesting and obvious to focus on.”

Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, Director of Applied Machine Learning, Facebook

For mobile operators the massive increase in bandwidth requirement created by VR and AR platforms will greatly benefit telecoms providers when this data is consumed using mobile broadband. Bandwidth and latency requirements will become increasingly important for a high quality user experience. While current 4G networks can power current VR and AR applications, more advanced and pervasive adoption of VR and AR will require the greater speed and bandwidth of 5G networks.

Telecoms organisations can also start using these technologies to improve their own customer service delivery. AR could also make its way into customer support tutorials that integrate with chat bots.

AR (and VR) could help with the visualisation and testing of new consumer propositions; connect customers with support engineers; and of course, help train and support their field engineers find a street cabinet, cables or give information regarding a customer property or account.

Whatever happens next, there will be a battle between AR and VR to deliver hardware, applications and customer use cases at a compelling price point and acceptable design.

There will be missed expectations and many more prototypes along the way, but the technology is gradually maturing and when it does, its value and application could be vast.

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