Is it too early for Augmented Reality?

Before I answer the question, let me refer you to this chart put out by Gartner this past summer. Notice that Augmented Reality is on the far left with a yellow triangle, which means “more than ten years” before mainstream adoption.

Ok, now I’m not going to argue what mainstream adoption is, as that would require a whole discussion of the Gartner research and a bunch of other stuff. What I will say though, is that I think that it will happen within ten years. The thing that has me thinking though, is the amount of mainstream EXPOSURE augmented reality is getting right now. This could drive (accelerate) mainstream adoption or it could be deleterious and actually handicap the technology so much, that it never reaches the mass market.

I’ve been tracking augmented reality on google, youtube, blogs, university research, and in the corporate world for more than a year now (and I’ve been aware of the concept and tech for much longer), and I can tell you that the exposure curve, or degree of exposure has been gaining a lot of critical mass in the last twelve months. Everyone is talking about AR right now, Microsoft XNA can do AR, the FLARToolkit is AR in Flash, and tons of commercials are starting to come out with AR or “AR like” elements.

Today is the superbowl and rumors are already flying about AR ads from General Electric, Coke, and maybe a few others. You can already find the following examples on the net:

Coke Avatar Ad

General Electric (you can do this at home)

Did I mention these will be showing at the Superbowl? I’m not sure there is any method of reaching out to the mass market at one time than a Superbowl commercial. Now, I’m not saying that this will drive adoption, but I’m saying that this amount of exposure, this early in the technology curve, could either be very good or very very bad.

Why bad? Well, first of all, the great majority of augmented reality is based on using markers or “fiducials” which are essentially printed patterns on paper that are viewed through a video stream, recognized by software, and then cause a 3D object to be displayed on a monitor. This works great for particular uses like the Lego kiosk or conference room presentations, or goofing around in your office. There is a long list of applications, but the real promise and potential of augmented reality isn’t based on these novelty applications…it is in something that is ubiquitious, wireless, mobile, global, pervasive, and connected to everything. As I have said before, Augmented Reality is NOT just about compositing 3D graphics on a video stream. Anyone that believes it is, misses the point entirely.

But anyway, I think back to the very early 90s when virtual reality started getting exposure. I fear that history may repeat itself. The technology was nowhere near ready…the graphics were terrible, the head mounted displays were giant and bulky, the whole thing was slow and caused eye strain, vertigo, and headaches, and the list goes on. However, Hollywood jumped on the idea and was putting out VR movies left and right, and then (the worst thing ever!) the greedy money guys jumped into the game with a lot of overeager, overpromising marketing types.

Virtual Reality obviously didn’t deliver what it promised and it was soon one of those things you didn’t to be associated with. “Virtual Reality” in a business plan meant certain death. Some of the same people weren’t quite satisfied with this and the movement to rebrand it all as “Virtual Worlds” (piggybacking on the early successes of MMORPGs) started developing. Looking back now though, is it any wonder that many of the virtual worlds companies (or the ones using VW tech for military/government/academic “solutions”) are the same seedy guys in suits and the technology has barely moved from where it was in 1995 or 1996? In contrast, the game industry kept moving forward like gangbusters…this is one of the differences between innovation and greed, but I digress.

I predict that Augmented Reality is going to get a massive boost in public mass market exposure in the next six months (starting today). You will see several high profile venture capital deals where an insane amount of money is either going to go to the established players (particularly Total Immersion and Metaio) or some unknown startup with a glitzy exec team, big corps are going to get on the bandwagon or increase their current efforts (IBM, HP, Sony, Nokia, Intel), Universities are going to increase their research programs (there are at least half a dozen great programs out there right now), and floundering virtual world solutions companies are going to attempt to twist/retool their marketing pitches to get a ride too, although they may try using different terms and marketing speak…augmented reality, enhanced reality, mixed reality, etc. I bet Forterra does this, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the UCF Institute of Simulation and Training trying to leverage their facilities as well.

I think that most (not all) of the venture deals in this space are going to be a total waste of funding for the time being. You have to look beyond a pretty business plan, accomplishments in other industries, an experienced executive team, or a demo that your 14 year old son likes. Before you throw any money at a venture deal in the augmented reality space, you better know exactly what you are getting in to. Ask around, pay attention to what bloggers are saying and talking about, read the right sci-fi books (Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling, Vinge, Stross, Niven, etc.). You have got to look AHEAD when considering an investment, not the NOW.

Anyway, Augmented Reality is at risk of getting people excited about the future potential and vision now, while we are still crawling around with basic concepts and marker technology. The industry doesn’t even have a decent lexicon and is generally one giant unexplored area of technology that has not really been trailblazed and pioneered yet. Sure a lot has been done in the last 20 years, but this is still an embryonic market. You can’t get people excited about the Coke: Avatar commercial, or Roku’s Reward, and then deliver this:

I’m just sayin.

If what I predict does happen, Augmented Reality (or at least the thing we are dreaming about) will have to rebrand itself. I already don’t think that “augmented reality” is a great term anyway and we need to find something a little shorter and more direct, but that is just me.

When I get some time, I’ll write another post describing where I think the technology could go and what we should be striving towards creating over the next 5-10 years. The future is very bright and I am extremely optimistic on the potential here. Augmented Reality is a disruptive technology and it will change the way we see the world, interact with media, and communicate, but as with the virtual world and MMORPG industries, there are too many projects and ventures going about it the wrong way (almost backwards in some senses).

Let’s do this right and not get ahead of ourselves. I welcome mass market exposure, new companies, a lot of venture capital activity, and willy-nilly innovation, but I don’t want to see us get mired in poor delivery and over promising. We have to break away from the “novelty” of AR and build something real and world changing.

What do YOU think?

PS Follow me on twitter already. @robertrice