The Augmented Reality Provider Landscape Shifts, Again
Developers of Augmented Reality experiences select tools and technology for a project to match use case requirements. If the use case involves a page in a book or the side of a package, then in these cases 3D tracking is overkill. If the project accesses records in a company’s ERP, there must be plug-ins or a customization. If the customer needs reports (e.g., number of objects recognized, interaction of the user, etc.), then the platform needs to support their production. If the target is a movie poster, the security considerations are entirely different than if the target involves a proprietary industrial process.
After five years of Metaio’s dominance of the AR software provider landscape, developers’ options are changing dramatically. This post reviews the recent changes in this provider landscape, how these impact developers and suggests that those who license and purchase development tools could use this period of research and evaluation as an opportunity to communicate more clearly about their project requirements to all the tool and technology vendors.
A Rapidly Changing Provider Landscape
In early 2015, Metaio’s ecosystem ranged from dedicated individuals producing one or two experiences, to Fortune 100 companies. Some were researchers designing prototypes; others were automotive industry giants like BMW and Audi who used Metaio’s robust tracking algorithms for precision engineering and design. Then, in mid-May 2015, a message appeared on Metaio’s website saying that it would stop selling licenses immediately, and that support for its Augmented Reality services and software technologies would end on December 15 of the same year. The mysterious announcement took the company’s global developer ecosystem by surprise.
Many, if not most, of those developers’ authoring experiences for enterprise and industrial projects were using Metaio’s software tools. Metaio’s change in direction put developers in an uncomfortable position. Many were furious. Others expressed frustration. To this day there remain many questions about the circumstances that led to the announcement. Regardless of the changes to a company that the developer ecosystem had grown to trust, serious business issues remain:
- What will happen to the channels published in a platform operated by Metaio?
- What will developers use in the place of Metaio’s tools?
Many developers are now doing what more could have done consistently over the previous years: investing their resources to evaluate other potential tools and technologies. The best developers will resume proposing projects to their customers once they have thoroughly tested the alternatives.
Gaps for Enterprise Augmented Reality
While there are alternate enterprise Augmented Reality technology providers with solutions and services worthy of evaluation (see table below), none offer the breadth and maturity, the professional documentation and support that Metaio provided for its SDK, Creator, Suite, Cloud and Continuous Visual Search matching system.
|Enterprise AR authoring providers and products|
Source: © 2014 – 2015
|DAQRI||4D Studio and AR Toolkit|
|Inglobe Technologies||AR Media (and other)|
|Catchoom||CraftAR (and other)|
|NGRAIN||Vergence (and other)|
|EON Reality||EON Studio (and other)|
|Fraunhofer IGD||Instant Reality|
Metaio’s dominance wasn’t limited to breadth of offering and AR developer mind share. Among its peers, it probably also generated the greatest revenue from licensing its software tools and providing services. To deliver value to customers and drive development of its technology suite, Metaio employed over 75 of the world’s most qualified and experienced enterprise AR engineers.Table 1. Enterprise AR authoring providers and their products
Those that can have been furiously hiring engineers to write code and build out their teams and offerings but breadth and depth like what Metaio offered doesn’t happen in a matter of months.
Vuforia’s Focus on Consumer Use Cases
No one knows precisely how much of the Metaio developer ecosystem overlapped that of Qualcomm Vuforia, but anecdotal evidence suggests that developers who had use for both, leveraged their qualities for entirely different projects.
Vuforia is strongly optimized for delivery to consumers on smartphones: entertainment, cultural heritage, education and marketing use cases. For this reason, developers who explored its use for their enterprise or industrial projects did not place Vuforia’s current offerings at the top of their list of preferred enterprise-ready AR tools.
In an October 12 press release, PTC, a global provider of enterprise platforms and solutions for creating, operating, and servicing connected objects, announced that it had reached an agreement to acquire the Vuforia technology, and its developer ecosystem, from Qualcomm Connected Experiences, Inc., a subsidiary of Qualcomm Incorporated.
The acquisition of Vuforia by PTC suggests that while Metaio technology is probably being integrated into a platform and tools for consumer-facing solutions, the tools most popular for consumer-facing AR experiences (i.e., the Vuforia SDK) will evolve to better meet the needs of developers seeking to address enterprise use cases.
The Landscape Continues to Evolve
The reversal of relative positions of the two popular Augmented Reality SDKs with respect to their target markets and one another is one of several trends.
First, the list of developer options is expanding. Firms that were previously quiet have the opportunity to engage with developers who are more interested in learning of their offers. Google is getting closer to its Glass at Work 2.0 release. Microsoft is showing HoloLens and the tools it has designed for authoring (aka “Holo Lens Studio”) to more developers. Some firms with significant experience and investments in enterprise Augmented Reality are becoming more attractive, or at least more visible. For example, Diotasoft, a French technology provider with loyal enterprise customers including Renault, PSA Peugot Citroen, Total and Dassault Aviation announced a rebranding (the company is now called “Diota”) and launched a new platform for enterprise Augmented Reality.
Another trend is a shift in positioning. PTC and Vuforia’s statements in their October 12 press release emphasize where they see the greatest potential for impact. They draw a line between Augmented Reality and the need for people to visualize data stored in and managed by PTC’s Internet of Things-oriented systems. This echoes the suggestion made by Gerry Kim, professor at Korea University, in a meeting of the AR Community on October 6: Augmented Reality is the human interface for IoT.
As the number of options increases, so does the potential cost of integration. In a highly fragmented market one large enterprise could easily end up with solutions addressing different use cases based on multiple different and incompatible SDKs.
An Opportunity to Mandate Open Solutions
A unique opportunity lies in the middle of the increasing fragmentation and investment in new technology providers.
What if, instead of accepting the status quo of many competing and incompatible AR platforms, large enterprise customers and their developers were to clearly demonstrate their need for open systems?
Developers can seize the next few weeks and months to prepare a campaign describing new or existing systems with which they would prefer to create and manage enterprise content. They can document the barriers to interoperability and mount pressure on enabling technology providers. What if, prior to a purchase or licensing decision, the provider of an AR authoring platform were required to demonstrate interoperability with content generated from Metaio’s SDK?
Openness does not mean Open Source. Openness is a condition that is based on explicit or implied agreements between vendors. Providers of technologies must agree upon common data formats, and provide interfaces and APIs that are well documented and designed for interoperability with solutions of potential competitors.
Without issuing a clear mandate for AR technology providers to support a greater level of integration and interoperability with enterprise IT systems, developers should not be surprised if their options remain highly rigid and difficult to integrate. Unless some forward thinking people don’t take action, developers and their large enterprise customers must be prepared to face many more years investing in brittle transcoding systems or other approaches to “work around” the lack of openness and interoperability.
How are you going to respond to this rapidly shifting AR technology provider landscape? Are you taking this opportunity to share your requirements with new vendors?