Face­book and Google love AR!

Why Face­book, Google, Snap, and dozens more love Ar—and what’s com­ing next

Fast Company - - Contents - By Dan Ty­nan Il­lus­tra­tions by Brian Stauf­fer

Our guide to tech’s ris­ing fas­ci­na­tion with aug­mented re­al­ity.

“If you take one thing away from to­day,” Mark Zucker­berg an­nounced in April from the stage of F8, Face­book’s an­nual con­fer­ence for de­vel­op­ers, “this is it: We’re mak­ing the [smart­phone] cam­era the first aug­mented-re­al­ity plat­form.”

Face­book had al­ready be­gun adding cam­era ef­fects to its apps, let­ting users over­lay ob­jects, an­i­ma­tions, and fil­ters on their images—an un­abashed knock­off of Snapchat’s pop­u­lar Ar-pow­ered Lenses. With a new open plat­form where de­vel­op­ers can cre­ate their own ef­fects, art, and 3-D games, Face­book is bet­ting that it can be­come the go-to des­ti­na­tion for AR

ex­pe­ri­ences, a Wechat-like repos­i­tory of third-party apps-with­inits-apps.

Af­ter years of dor­mancy, the hype around AR is ratch­et­ing back up. Be­yond Face­book’s aug­mented am­bi­tions (which in­clude, down the road, a wear­able de­vice), there’s Google’s four-year-old Glass, Mi­crosoft’s Hololens, and the mys­te­ri­ous, well-funded Magic Leap—along with a ru­mored de­vice from Ap­ple. Ac­cord­ing to mar­ket re­search firm CB In­sights, 49 AR com­pa­nies have se­cured eq­uity fi­nanc­ing deals since last spring—a 75% in­crease from the year be­fore.

They’re all vy­ing to dom­i­nate a fu­ture where the sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the phys­i­cal and the dig­i­tal is wafer-thin, and you won’t need a key­board or a touch screen to nav­i­gate it. “Aug­mented re­al­ity is the next mo­bile com­puter, the next OS, the next so­cial plat­form,” says Ori In­bar, founder of Su­per Ven­tures, a VC firm spe­cial­iz­ing in AR. “The smart­phone is dead; it just doesn’t know it yet.”

What pieces of this hy­per­bole might ac­tu­ally prove out? Here’s our three-part guide to how AR will ac­tu­ally un­fold.

Our phones will be the gate­way—for now

For the bet­ter part of a decade, de­vel­op­ers have been promis­ing to use smart­phone cam­eras to en­hance our per­spec­tive on the world. In 2009, Yelp in­tro­duced its Mon­o­cle fea­ture, an­no­tat­ing users’ cam­era lenses with rat­ings for lo­cal busi­nesses; a spate of sim­i­lar apps fol­lowed, but none gained any sig­nif­i­cant trac­tion. It was rain­bow-vom­it­ing mil­len­ni­als that pushed the tech­nol­ogy into the main­stream, with the in­tro­duc­tion of Snapchat’s ad­dic­tive, selfie-en­hanc­ing Lenses in Septem­ber 2015. By the fol­low­ing Au­gust, Poké­mon Go had 100 mil­lion down­loads, as peo­ple peered through their smart­phones to hunt for Char­man­ders and Squir­tles in habi­tats across the globe.

The abil­ity to re­place your nose with a dog snout or cap­ture a Jig­gly­puff lurk­ing out­side your fa­vorite café may ap­pear friv­o­lous, but it’s ac­tu­ally pro­found—a clever way of eas­ing con­sumers into aug­mented re­al­ity, with­out call­ing it that. Snapchat now has a promis­ing ad­ver­tis­ing plat­form with its spon­sored lenses, which can be tied to spe­cific lo­ca­tions. Niantic, the de­vel­oper behind Poké­mon Go, cre­ated a hit that has gen­er­ated an es­ti­mated $1 bil­lion–plus in rev­enue. In the cur­rent rush to cre­ate the next big AR app—from mul­ti­player games to more prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions, like in­ter­ac­tive travel guides and shop­ping as­sis­tants—suc­cess may ul­ti­mately de­pend on the for­mula that these two com­pa­nies laid out: so­cial in­ter­ac­tion grounded by su­pe­rior lo­ca­tion in­tel­li­gence.

At the same time, smart­phones are grow­ing more so­phis­ti­cated. Since 2014, Google has been de­vel­op­ing its Tango plat­form, which gives mo­bile de­vices spa­tial aware­ness. Late last year, Len­ovo re­leased the $500 Phab 2 Pro, the first Tan­goen­abled smart­phone. Us­ing mul­ti­ple cam­eras and ad­vanced, mo­tion-track­ing sen­sors, the Phab 2 cre­ates 3-D maps from twodi­men­sional images. Train the phone’s lens on your liv­ing room, and Tango will know the lamp is six feet to the left of the couch. You can then use a Tango-op­ti­mized app from e-com­merce gi­ant Way­fair to see how a (vir­tual) cof­fee ta­ble looks be­tween them. Lowe’s Home Im­prove­ment has a sim­i­lar app, along with one that al­lows cus­tomers to use the phone’s cam­era to nav­i­gate its stores.

Such ef­forts are early, and their ex­e­cu­tions fairly crude. Len­ovo’s em­brace of Tango is more of a proof of con­cept than a ground­break­ing de­vice. But that may change quickly. The sec­ond Tango-en­abled phone, the Asus Zen­fone AR, lands this sum­mer. And ac­cord­ing to ru­mors, the up­com­ing iphone 8 will also sport a depth-sens­ing cam­era to en­able AR apps. No­tably, Ap­ple typ­i­cally waits un­til a tech­nol­ogy is ma­ture—and con­sumers are ready—be­fore in­cor­po­rat­ing it into a flag­ship prod­uct. “Once the iphone has that [cam­era],” In­bar con­tends, “it will be­come a de facto stan­dard.”

Wear­ables will be re­fined in the work­place

De­spite the suc­cess of Snapchat and Poké­mon Go, no­body be­lieves the fu­ture of AR con­sists of star­ing into smart­phones, chas­ing myth­i­cal crea­tures.

That’s be­cause the phone is a less-than-ideal in­ter­face. “Let’s say you walk into a su­per­mar­ket that’s en­abled with aug­mented re­al­ity,” says Tuong Nguyen, prin­ci­pal an­a­lyst for re­search firm Gart­ner. “How many times dur­ing your shop­ping trip are you will­ing to take out your phone? How long are you will­ing to hold it up?” The big­gest hur­dle for AR, Nguyen says: “It needs to be built into the glasses I’m al­ready wear­ing.”

To­day, there are some 50 AR head­sets in pro­duc­tion, rang­ing

from ba­sic eye­glasses that can dis­play 3-D images to $20,000 in­dus­trial-strength hel­mets from maker Daqri. But none are small, cheap, or el­e­gant enough for mass ap­peal. So for the next few years, AR de­vices will be found pri­mar­ily in work en­vi­ron­ments, where their cost and ap­pear­ance don’t mat­ter as much. ABI Re­search projects that the AR mar­ket will grow to $96 bil­lion by 2021, with 60% of that go­ing to in­dus­trial and com­mer­cial uses.

Google Glass, for ex­am­ple, has found a home on the fac­tory floor af­ter fail­ing to take off among con­sumers. Boe­ing uses Glass to dis­play tech­ni­cal di­a­grams to work­ers as­sem­bling elec­tric wire har­nesses for air­craft, leav­ing their hands free to per­form tasks. (When you’re cut­ting assem­bly time by 25%, no­body calls you a Glass­hole.) And it’s not just Google Glass: Med-tech startup Scopis has made a Hololens app to guide sur­geons through spinal surgery. At Min­neapo­lis’s Morten­son Con­struc­tion, con­trac­tors can don a Daqri Smart Hel­met, walk through a 3-D model of a hos­pi­tal un­der con­struc­tion, and see where the plumb­ing will be routed be­fore it’s ac­tu­ally in place.

Wide­spread in­dus­trial use won’t just change the way we work; it will in­form fu­ture con­sumer-fac­ing prod­ucts. Just as in­dus­trial work­ers use AR to sum­mon re­mote as­sis­tance dur­ing com­pli­cated ma­neu­vers, home­own­ers who want to retile their bath­rooms may one day turn to a pair of glasses for vir­tual walk-throughs and di­a­grams.

AR will sur­round us

In the mean­time, AR is con­tin­u­ing to pop up in ev­ery­day de­vices. If your car’s rear-fac­ing cam shows you a squig­gly red line as you’re about to back into a tree, you’re us­ing AR. Smart mir­rors are be­ing rolled out at Sephora stores, to en­able vir­tual makeup test­ing, and at Neiman Mar­cus, to let shop­pers change the color of their out­fits or try on pre­scrip­tion glasses. In the same way that “adap­tive cruise con­trol” and “lane-change as­sist” are lead­ing us to­ward fully au­ton­o­mous cars, AR will be in­sin­u­ated into our lives one fea­ture at a time.

Aug­mented fea­tures are also likely to seep fur­ther into in­ex­pen­sive wear­ables, as seen in Snapchat’s video-cap­ture Spec­ta­cles and wire­less ear­buds like Ap­ple’s Air­pods. Dop­pler Labs has al­ready re­leased its Here One smart ear­buds, which let you am­plify cer­tain fre­quen­cies and fil­ter out oth­ers—aug­ment­ing your au­ral re­al­ity. CEO Noah Kraft sees a fu­ture where AR ex­ists nat­u­rally in your ear. “Say you’re walk­ing down the street and all of a sud­den Siri pops into your head and says, ‘Hey, your next meet­ing is run­ning 15 min­utes behind,’ ” he says. “In our world, that doesn’t dis­tract from what’s go­ing on around you.”

Still, bring­ing the so­phis­ti­ca­tion and re­li­a­bil­ity of in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions to a de­vice that fits seam­lessly into our daily lives is a daunt­ing task. The tech­ni­cal chal­lenges are steep, and it’s un­clear whether the pub­lic will em­brace yet an­other wear­able (and if the con­tent will be good enough to con­vince them to). Nonethe­less, Ap­ple is re­port­edly plung­ing ahead, as are Google, Face­book, Mi­crosoft, and many oth­ers.

For tech firms, get­ting skin in the AR game may sim­ply be a mat­ter of sur­vival. Just as the in­ter­net and mo­bile rad­i­cally changed the tech land­scape, AR has the po­ten­tial to cre­ate new gi­ants while hum­bling old ones, says Piers Hard­ingrolls, di­rec­tor of games re­search for IHS Tech­nol­ogy, a Lon­don-based re­search firm.

The fu­ture, in other words, will be aug­mented. But by the time it hap­pens, we might not even no­tice.

Just as the in­ter­net and mo­bile changed the tech land­scape, AR has the po­ten­tial to cre­ate new gi­ants.

In his sights Face­book’s Zucker­berg, at this year’s F8 con­fer­ence, is mak­ing AR a top pri­or­ity.

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