What Apple’s Purchase of Metaio Really Means for Augmented Reality
Skeptics have been saying for years (or decades, for those really keeping count) that Augmented Reality applications, much like their VR siblings, are variously destined to be “niche” technologies, pipe dreams or simply impossible. The VR community is doing a great job of proving these skeptics wrong: Oculus, HTC and Valve are on the cusp of releasing VR headsets in the $300-400 range that will enable anyone to bring VR home. There is a critical mass of indie developers who are passionate about bringing VR experiences for the whole world to see, share and experience, and there are real VR apps, games and other experiences that people can download and use today, even if the hardware comes in the form of developer kits or roll-your-own cardboard.
You could say the AR community has been less successful. AR is more difficult to explain to the uninitiated (“it’s kind of like VR, but not”). The technologies needed to make compelling Augmented Reality experiences are arguably more challenging (real-time 3D object tracking, anyone?). And there’s an argument to be made that we, as an AR community, tend to over-promise and under-deliver—a quick browse through YouTube are AR marketing videos that present sci-fi’ed visions of the future with fantastic, magical wearable displays and free-hand gestural interactions that would have a place in any Hollywood summer blockbuster.
The skeptics can be forgiven if that’s what they think augmented reality is all about — as an AR community, there tends to be the default refrain that the future is going to be awesome, when it finally gets here.
If there is one thing that we can take away from this recent transaction between Apple and Metaio, it’s this: the future is now. And as a community, we owe it to ourselves to start thinking that way. It is true that key parts of the AR tech stack aren’t 100% robust. Wearable smart glasses present themselves as Atari-era in capability in a world with PS4/Xbox One-level expectations and there are very few tools out there to help AR content creators (shameless plug: here at NGRAIN, we do offer an AR content creation tool called NGRAIN Vergence that lets you create industrial AR content without having to write a single line of code). But as it is with any emerging technology, the goal can’t be to have a perfect technology, but rather one that suspends disbelief and serves its intended audience well.
In fact, there are enough parts of the AR tech stack that are available today to create compelling industrial applications or entertaining experiences. What we do at NGRAIN is a case in point: we already have customers who are bringing augmented reality to their businesses, from assessing vehicle damage in the maintenance yard to making crucial operational decisions in sub-zero temperatures. I will own up to the fact that the technology isn’t always where I wish it were, or that it doesn’t do everything I wish it did but it does plenty to deliver value to our customers, which is really the name of the game. And it all comes from focusing on the real problems—the ones our customers have—rather than the challenges we sometimes invent as a community (e.g. the “need” for high res optics, zero latency experiences or magically perfect object tracking and registration).
Coming back to that parallel in the VR world, it’s a certainty that the first generation of commercially available VR gear will not be everything to everyone, but the good news is that it doesn’t have to be: it will be good enough for people to give it a try, get hooked, and look forward to the future with the confidence that the experiences will keep getting even better than they are today. This has every reason to hold true for those of us developing applications in the AR world as well.
Let’s get people excited about what’s possible today, rather than getting them to wait until tomorrow!