Unity Gives Augmented Reality the Nod during Vision Summit 2016

If you saw the headlines coming out of Unity’s Vision Summit, you probably noticed a trend: Virtual Reality was the star of Vision Summit 2016. Valve’s Gabe Newell gave everyone an HTC Vive Pre. The Oculus Rift will come with a four-month Unity license. Unity is getting native support for Google Cardboard. At the summit, the expo floor had long lines for the “big three” head-mounted displays (HMDs): Sony’s PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

It’s not that Augmented Reality was absent from what was billed as “The Definitive Event for Innovators in VR/AR,” but rather that the technology was in the minority of tools. This is the year of Virtual Reality, with the big three VR providers launching major products in March (Oculus), April (HTC) and sometime in the fall (Sony). The event was hosted by Unity, which caters almost exclusively to game developers needing comprehensive cross-platform development tools, and gaming in VR is expected to be huge. Virtual Reality was even the focus of the keynote, but astute observers might have noticed something.

Best Days of Augmented Reality Are Ahead

Unity’s own keynote referenced a report by Digi-Capital which predicts that the AR industry will have negligible revenue in 2016, but will surpass VR in 2019. In 2020, the AR industry is predicted to triple the value of VR. Take this with a grain of salt; Unity is in the business of selling licenses for their cross-platform game development toolset, so they’re incentivized to predict massive growth, but even reducing these numbers to a cynical level shows massive promise in a new field.

Most of this growth may be in gaming, but the AR presence on the expo floor leaned toward enterprise use. Epson was demonstrating their Moverio line of smart glasses, which has been around since 2012. Vuzix had their M-100 available to try, and they were eager to tout their upcoming AR3000 smartglasses.  In its booth, Vuforia demonstrated a Mixed Reality application on Gear VR that allowed the viewer to disassemble a motorcycle and view each part individually, which could be handy for vehicle technicians.

Of course, you can learn the most from hands-on experience with enterprise AR, which is exactly what NASA presented. They showed how they replaced complicated written procedures with contextual, relevant, clear instructions with AR using HoloLens. They also had a suite of visualization tools for collaborating on equipment design.

I presented the results of a year-long collaboration between Float and the CTTSO to develop an AR application designed to assist users in operational environments. We discussed the ins and outs of developing a “true AR” experience from the ground up, in addition to all of the lessons we learned doing image processing, using Project Tango, and more. At the end, I demonstrated the finished app, with integrated face recognition, text recognition, and navigation assistance supported either on an Epson Moverio or the Osterhout R-6.

An Increasing Focus

Vision Summit 2016 may have been a largely focused on VR, but that’s not a reflection of a lack of interest in AR. In our own research, we estimated that AR was lagging behind VR in terms of the technology readiness level by a few years. This was confirmed at the Vision Summit, but there’s still plenty of AR to get excited about. Valve even stated that they’d let developers access the external camera on the HTC Vive “in the long run” for Augmented and Mixed Reality applications. Expect next year’s Vision Summit to have a much larger focus on AR as this industry begins to truly take shape.

Did you attend Vision Summit 2016? What did you observe? Do you plan to attend the Unity event in 2017?

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