Augmented Reality: Blue Sky, Green Earth

When I was in Rotterdam last week for emerce’s eDay (wonderful conference by the way), I had a lot of people talking to me afterwards, usually with questions about the technology, how I thought it would impact one industry or another, what the future might hold, or what the business models might be. One thing I noticed though, was that most of these people could be divided into two different camps.

Blue Sky

These people had their eyes opened during my presentation. They had no idea what augmented reality was, or if they did, they did not realize what the state-of-the-art is, or how close we are getting to the really cool stuff in the very near future. One woman gushed about how excited she was and that now she could see the implications of AR for her company. She was quite thankful to have had the chance to be exposed to something she considered off in the distant future. For her, the important thing was getting exposed to the “blue sky” potential of augmented reality and a glimpse of what was coming.

Green Earth

These were the practical people. They are up to speed on everything going on out there, and they are almost tired of hearing the phrase augmented reality. They are still enthused about the potential, but they don’t really care to hear someone like me talk about the cool stuff, what is coming, or how it will change the world. They want to know, right now, when is it going to be here, how is it going to be practical, and how are they going to be able to make money on it. What is the business model? Who are the early adopters? Which industries will glom on to AR first and run with it? One of these people even complained about the first part of my presentation where I explained what AR was. “We get it already, let’s talk about the practical stuff”.

In the middle…

I think that for now, at this stage of the industry and the technology, we have to continue evangelizing the blue sky. Many people are aware of AR now, but there are still loads more that haven’t heard of it, or are just now discovering the GE Smart Grid AR campaign from the beginning of the year, or they stumble across an old demo from an AR company two or three years ago. Heck, even the really savvy people are just now cluing in to Evan Sutherland’s Ultimate Display essay from 1965 that outlines some AR concepts. Yeah. 1965. And we still don’t have flying cars or a moonbase either, to my eternal annoyance.

Anyway, this is important because the AR industry is just getting started, and for the immediate future, the tech isn’t going to be all that fantastic. We have some time to build all the neat stuff and eventually get to the contact lens displays (which are not coming soon, press to the contrary notwithstanding). We need to keep people focused on what is coming, how it will be useful, and how we will get there. This will all directly relate to early user adoption, funding, R&D, etc. We have to keep people engaged, interested, and eager for the future. I’m tired of boring listless people with no sense of hope or childlike amazement and excitement. I want another golden age of hope, invention, and innovation. To get that, we have to inspire.

On the other hand though, the risk of over hyping, unrealistic expectations, marketing saturation, and everything else along those lines is still a big risk factor. Already I’m seeing people on twitter complaining about seeing too much about augmented reality. I’ve certainly been critical of a number of things that I thought were over hyped, or make claims that are easily misunderstood and representated (I’m looking at you, contact lens display guys!). However, instead of trying to shove AR back into Pandora’s Box (and AR is definitely something big enough to suit that phrase), we should instead focus on the here and now. How do we plan on building “it”? How do we execute? How are we going to frame the standards and protocols? How will it make money? What are the business models? What are the technology obstacles or challenges? When can I start using this for my business? How exactly will it benefit me and my business?

We can’t focus all of our attention on the blue sky anymore. We had that last year and during the spring of this year. Now, we have to split between the pretty clouds and butterflies with the trench digging in the ground…pulling out rocks and building walls and buildings.

So, when you talk to people about AR, start with the blue sky, get them caught up to speed, and watch for the twinkle in their eye when the proverbial light bulb goes off, and then take them right to the green earth. Talk about the particulars, the plans, the risks, and the models. Keep it real, don’t overblow it.

There will be 1,000 AR companies out there in the next couple of years. This is a race too early to call, and an industry too young to peg into a niche or particular framework. Keep your minds open, head in the sky, and feet on the ground.

Then get out there and DO it.

Robert