AR is not the new VR...but it could be

In the early 90’s, Virtual Reality, or “VR”, began to get a lot of attention. Sure, the idea had been around for a while, and plenty of people were working on it to some degree or another, but like the Internet it really started emerging into the public eye in the early 90s. I myself got my first job in the “industry” working at a virtual reality arcade game company in Louisville Kentucky called Alternate Worlds Technology. I have lots of stories about THAT, but this post isn’t going to go there.

The appeal of VR was immense. Our imaginations ran wild with visions of cyberspace, immersive worlds where you were really there and the sheer potential of the technology was almost overwhelming. I remember reading a lot about different groups doing research or working on varying VR projects, but we felt like we were way ahead of the curve…we were doing multi-user VR. Sure, the graphics were terrible, the head-mounted displays were very heavy and bulky, and there were a host of other problems, but we were working on it. We were digital pioneers blazing new trails in entertainment and technology. The first game I ever designed was Cybertag…a multi-user virtual reality shooter. It was pretty awesome for the time.

Anyway, the big Achilles heel of virtual reality was that it was born too early. The internet was barely hatched, DOS and Windows 3.11 were the main operating systems, VGA (no hardware acceleration) was the limit of graphics, and you were doing good if you had a 486/66 computer. I don’t want to get into a history lesson here, or talk about the golden age of 1990 to 1997 (give or take), but technology (hardware and software) could not keep up with our imaginations. VR died “on the vine” quite quickly. You can still find some of the early VR celebrities hanging on to their glory days, having never moved on.

Virtual Worlds (VW) had a similar history, and a similar fate. If you look back, you can see the ground littered with virtual worlds of all types, most of them terrible quality, poor design, or build on old ideas and technology. Even worse are the lost millions and millions of dollars that were carelessly thrown at the “potential” while ignoring the practical. VR has never really recovered, and VW nearly died as well, except that its cousin, MMORPGs, caught on.

I’ll get to my point about augmented reality (AR) in a few minutes. A massive amount of money has been made on MMORPGs, and this will not stop anytime soon. Of course, vast amounts of money are still being foolishly invested in MMO companies controlled by people that have no idea what they are doing, but they have a lot of skill in acquiring money, so that will go on. Many people will lose their investments…which means that the good ideas by smart people will continue to be unfunded, and medoicre crap will keep being released to the market. Still, money will be made. The masses want MMORPGs and they will pay for the best they can get (regardless of how bad it is). 

As MMORPGs have made a lot of money, social networking has caught on (even though this is old news to most of the game and virtual world industry), and now a lot of attention (and money) is being thrown at virtual worlds and those “blends” of virtual world, social networking, and mmorpg. These are usually low tech browser based things targeted at kids and young teens. While the biggest MMORPG on the block has more than 10M users, the biggest social gaming virtual world (MapleStory I believe) has over 75M. So, everyone wants on that bandwagon and the flow of money is going in that direction. What people are missing (because they are focused on the NOW, and not the short term future) is that by the time these newly funded ventures are ready for release, that huge 75M number will be ready for more adult content. Massive opportunity for a smartly designed MMORPG in three to five years time I think. 

Anyway, I digress. This blog post is about Augmented Reality. In the last six months or so, augmented reality has emerged into the public view and you can almost plot the growth in the number of youtube videos, press releases, reviews, blogs, and so forth talking about Augmented Reality. Intel, Nokia, HP, Harvard, MIT, HITLabs, Total Immersion, University of Cambridge, UNC, Alcatel-Lucent, the list goes on and on. Everyone seems to be doing *something* with Augmented Reality right now.

The feeling of Deja vu is unmistakable. I have this tangible sense of history repeating itself. As VR was in the early days, so is AR now. Everything I have seen is interesting to be sure, and the potential is incredible…surpassing VR and possibly the world wide web in terms of scope and degree of change it could bring. But the thing that worries me, is that everything I am seeing reeks of novelty, not practicality. There is no vision, no real innovation, no real eye-opening technology or application. I’ve seen a few things that made me say “wow” but nothing that elicited a “OMG WOW”. 

I predict that what has happened before will happen again. There is still some time for things to percolate and gain some momentum. With Gartner calling augmented reality one of the top 10 most disruptive technologies coming soon , and Intel’s CEO spending his keynote speech at CES 08 almost entirely on augmented reality, it is just a matter of time before some Silicon Valley “suits” throw together a business plan, grab $50M and blow it all on some weak uninspiring AR application that launches with the fanfare of a dead roach on the kitchen floor. This will be followed up by someone else with a better idea or maybe a more all-star executive team, but with the same results. A few startups will find a measure of success and eventually get acquired, but ultimately, the industry will miss the boat again, and AR will go the way of VR for at least ten years.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again…the tech sector has lost its creative spirit and sense of American innovation and excitement. Nearly everything since the dot com crash has been a rehash of something old or some minor improvement. What does it say when the big “stories” are myspace, youtube, and facebook? Are those really billion dollar companies? Did they really develop something new and incredible? Did they advance technology in some fashion? No I don’t think so.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Back to AR. The potential of the technology is exactly what everyone says it is and will be. It can accomplish much of what our early dreams for VR could have done. One of the key differences is that the world is different. Computers are everywhere. They are fast, they can create incredible digital vistas and near photorealistic worlds in real-time. Our grandparents are blogging and sharing videos. IPhones are *everywhere*. High-tech has gone mainstream. The potential of AR can be realized now if someone simply brings together a vision, a team, a plan, and reasonable funding. There is so much that AR could be used for…it can be a total game changer. Nearly every industry can be changed radically with the right application of augmented reality. Am I the only one thinking about this? Vast riches await those that seize this with the right idea and approach and find funding enough to bring the first version to market.

My complaint is that I’m not seeing much (if any) vision out there and funding is extremely difficult to grab hold of unless you are really well networked and live on the West Coast (say what you want, but the East Coast VC community has a completely different mentality). In my own efforts, I either find that people simply do not grasp it (they don’t “get” virtual worlds, MMORPGs, or VR either), or they fear the risk so much that they are happy to remain “in the loop” but have no desire to be involved until someone else is either. I’m beginning to find some traction and people that do “get it”, but this is never an easy or fast process. This atmosphere is not conducive for the visionaries and the risk-takers that could change our lives for the better. Vision needs inspiration, funding, and believers. Lack of funding and lack of believers is a millstone around the neck of an entrepreneur, innovator, creator, visionary.

Even with all of my gloom and doom, there is some glimmer of hope. There are still people out there that hunger for innovation and have deeply ingrained ambitions to do, to create, to accomplish, and to inspire. To change the world.  I’m one of these people. Watch what I am going to do. It is going to be pretty damned cool.  The others like me have been hiding for a while, having suffered our own defeats or failures from the dot com crash (being an entrepreneur takes a LOT out of you, especially after a failed venture). The younger crowd has reigned supreme lately (web 2.0 cough cough), but there is an awakening happening right now. I’m seeing it on blogs and on twitter and in small techpreneur meetups. I think things are going to percolate for another year or two, and then WHAM, another cycle will start. We will move away from the weak business models, vapor tech, and community advertising masquerading as “social networking”. The innovators will come back…augmented reality, semantic search, meta-data, clean power, and advancements in medicine, farming, artificial intelligence, and so many other areas.

We must find our spirit again and leap into the unknown. There are risks to be sure, but we should not shy away from them as we have over the last decade. Find a visionary and fund them. Help them build their plans and cultivate their teams. Too many great ideas are being passed over for the mediocre and the safe bet.

Is it any wonder we still do not have flying cars? Or that we have not returned to the moon? 

Don’t let go of your ideas and your dreams. Hang on tight to them and never give up. Network. Then network some more. Refine, rewrite, revise, and recreate. Make your idea better, put it through the crucible. Then network again. Keep at it. The greatest visionaries, inventors, innovators, and leaders of history all faced failure at one time or another, and they all suffered through the soul-deep trials and sleepless nights it takes to give birth to something wonderful and life-changing.

Ok, thats the end of my late night rant. It didn’t quite work out like I was planning, but it is a decent braindump I guess : )