Keiichi Matsuda Hyper-Reality

Augmented Reality for the Masses

While everyone is talking about next-gen smartphones like the very impressive Galaxy Note 8 and the highly-anticipated iPhone X, I'm more interested in what's being built on top of smartphones that will bridge us to the next big thing.1

Let's talk about Augmented Reality.

What is AR?

You've actually seen it before, you just don't realize it:

  • If you've ever watched a game of football on TV, the yellow line on the field that constantly moves to indicate the first-down…that's augmented reality.

More recently:

  • If you've ever went outside hunting for Pokémon characters…that was augmented reality.

  • If you use Snapchat to turn your face into a dog and send it to all your friends…that's augmented reality.

Not to be confused with Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality is about overlaying digital information on everything you see. To put it another way:

Virtual Reality is about teleporting you to a new world. Augmented Reality is about enhancing the world around you.

AR Today: Incubation Phase

Here's the current landscape of AR summed up by Timothy Buck:

Google's Project Tango has been around since 2014, and it is almost universally considered a flop. Project Tango only works on specialized hardware that relatively few people own, and because of that, the software landscape is bleak.

Update: Google's ARCore, which is basically Project Tango minus the required specialized hardware, was announced just a few weeks ago. When it launches (release date TBA), it will be limited to Google Pixel (1+ million units shipped) & Galaxy S8 (20+ million).

Microsoft's HoloLens was announced in early 2015, and it's really quite impressive by all accounts. But it's not really a consumer product. The HoloLens starts at $3,000 and is marketed as a developer edition. At this point, they have too few users to truly attract developers in large numbers. Obviously, this could change dramatically if they announce a truly revolutionary consumer device.

Facebook's AR Studio is only a few months older than AR Kit, and Facebook has 2 billion users. But at this point, Facebook isn't offering a way for developers to monetize their AR Studio creations. This means it will be filled with AR "apps" that are essentially ads for companies that monetize in other ways.

In the fall, Apple will update their iPhone line and hundreds of millions of iOS devices being used today will be updated to iOS 11 and capable of running ARKit apps. This is serious incentive [for app developers], and I expect to see a cascade of AR-enabled apps in the App Store at the end of the year.

When iOS 11 launches later this month, Augmented Reality will be supported on iPhone SE, iPhone 6s, iPhone 7, all iPad Pros, the 2017 iPad, and all new iPhones launching this month.

How many devices is that? Some number crunching by David Barnard:

326m iPhones have been sold since the iPhone 6S was released. Some were iPhone 6/6 Plus, but 350m total compatible devices is realistic.

78m iPhones and 13m iPads shipped Q1 (Oct-Dec) last year. And quite a few 7/7 Plus in Q4. iPhone 8 will push it to 450m by the end of 2017.

To put it another way:

Overnight, iOS becomes the largest Augmented Reality platform in the world.

While everyone else gets bragging rights for demoing AR years ago, Apple hits the ground running in the race that matters — first to critical mass.2

AR 1.0: Coming Soon

This past June, Apple opened its doors to developers with the release of ARKit. In just three months, developer adoption has been phenomenal. Here are a few demos I want to highlight:

  • Imagine going to a concert, fair, or festival and finding out your friends are there too:

  • Imagine navigating around a new city like this:

  • Imagine going to a new restaurant and picking out the perfect meal:

  • Imagine moving into a new home and planning out your interior design:

  • Imagine your kid playing games like this in the living room:

  • Imagine trying on new clothes, makeup, and hairstyles like this:

  • Imagine floating a little virtual charm above your head as a status message for the real world. Share your mood with an emoji. Rep your hometown with your favorite sports team logo. Put up a little Fuck Off DND sign when you want to be alone.

  • These two are just flat out cool:

  • For 40+ more demos that I've handpicked, check out all the videos I've posted under Made with ARKit.

Yes, these demos are more on the gimmicky side. But let's put it in perspective:

When the iTunes App Store opened in 2008, novelties like Super Monkey Ball and fart apps were all the rage. They weren't game-changing themselves by any means…but getting developers to invest into the platform was paramount.

Over the years, app development matured and the world was introduced to cultural phenomenons and world-changers like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Uber.

AR 2.0: Beyond Smartphones

Today's AR comes in the form of Pokémon Go & Snapchat filters. Tomorrow's AR will come in the form of fun & gimmicky demos on next-gen smartphones. But what will AR be like in the years ahead?

  • What happens when we move AR from our smartphone screens to glasses that are comfortable, stylish, and affordable? What happens to smartphones & tablets when all we need is wireless voice-enabled earbuds, AR glasses, and a powerful smartwatch?

  • What happens when multiple people in the same room can share the same augmented experience? What about entire sports arenas? Entire cities?

  • What happens to child development when groups of kids grow up together building & interacting with the same elaborate fantasy worlds right in your living room?

  • What happens when we can replace web browsers & URLs with AR glasses & QR codes in the real world?

  • What happens to online shopping when you can augment any product imaginable onto your body, your driveway, or your home?

  • What happens to offices & conference rooms when we don’t need monitors or TV screens? What happens to interiors of cars when we don’t need physical dashboards or navigation consoles?

  • What happens to international travel when every sign is automagically translated for you? What happens when you can talk to anyone in the world and their words are subtitled for you in real-time?

  • What happens when we can hold up signs anywhere but only allow certain people to see them?

  • What happens to parties & socialization when virtual name tags can only be seen by those with mutual friends? What happens to clubs, concerts, festivals, and dating when singles can display their statuses above their head to only compatible matches?

In Closing

There's so much more to innovation than showing off a flashy demo, impressing loyal fans, or being first to market. Innovation is more than just improving the status quo.

Innovation is about challenging the status quo.

Innovation is about getting new technologies into the hands of millions, driving people to break old habits & create new ones. Innovation is about disrupting the way companies do business, forcing entire industries to rethink their product strategies, operations, and business models.

The next big thing isn't a better-looking smartphone with beefier hardware specs that one-ups the competition. The next big thing will be new AR software & services in the real world...and smartphone AR will be the bridge that takes us there.

It will take years for AR to mature into a world-changing technology. Up until now, Augmented Reality has been limited to early-adopting developers & big-spending enthusiasts. AR has yet to prove compelling, convenient, and affordable enough for mainstream adoption. As the saying goes: "The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed."

With the upcoming launch of iOS 11 in the next couple weeks — which will unlock Augmented Reality for 450 million iOS devices this year — AR finally makes its first real step for the masses.3

  1. We can argue that Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning are the next big thing, especially since they are fundamental building blocks for AR, voice recognition, automation, etc. But AR is a little more “tangible” to consumers. 

  2. "First to critical mass" doesn't necessarily mean dominant market share; Apple just needs enough third-party support & mainstream adoption to carry its ecosystem through the next paradigm shift. Google's ARCore will follow shortly after and, if I had to make a slap bet, likely end up dominating the rest of the AR market to form a duolopoly. 

  3. Mainstream adoption doesn't necessarily mean Apple will "win", but don't make the mistake of betting against them.