Augmented World Expo, E3, and the Future of Augmented and Virtual Reality

I recently attended Augmented World Expo, and was able to see some of the incredible technology that’s available, or in the pipeline, for Augmented and Virtual Reality. 3,000 attendees and 100-odd booths on the expo floor made it clear that AR and VR is not a niche or fad, but rather an inflection point on what will be a massive growth curve. “Superpowers to the People” was the motto of the expo, emphasizing the more-than-human possibilities that AR and VR can provide the world. It’s an ambitious outlook, but one that I became slightly less skeptical of as the convention progressed. Most of the devices and experiences shown were in alpha and beta phase (and some even earlier), with only a handful of market-ready products shown. Those that were market ready were impressive, but I still couldn’t help but feel that even the most fully developed products needed more time to mature. Even so, it didn’t keep me from realizing the truly awe-inspiring potential of the technologies on hand (or on head in many cases).

Augmented World Expo was primarily focused on Augmented Reality, which isn’t exactly a surprise. However, there was a smattering of Virtual Reality products, content, and discussions to round out the expo. There was even a lively debate on AR vs. VR. While there was a heavy emphasis on enterprise use cases, the possibilities for education tech and consumer entertainment were also prevalent and exciting to see across both AR and VR. Along with the expected smart glasses and VR HMDs, another technology showcased was 360° video, with both consumer and enterprise products on display. Google’s recent announcements surrounding VR and 360° video (discussed in the insight Apple Acquires AR firm Metaio, and Google Pushes VR) emphasizes this market even more, and we’re likely to see more consumer-ready 360° video platforms joining the more expensive products on offer.

Overall, AWE served as a great representation of the current AR and VR markets: fast moving, forward looking, and incredibly promising. Next year’s expo is expected to grow significantly—as it did this year compared to last—and I expect that another year of testing and R&D will allow the slightly immature products and experiences to grow even closer to the ultimate vision: Superpowers to the People. Some of the more impressive products on display, in my opinion:

  • CastAR: entertainment-focused platform using projection-based glasses and reflective surface material. Accurate head and controller tracking with impressive depth in visuals.

  • ODG R7 smart glasses: smart glasses with the spec sheet of a high-end smartphone: Snapdragon 805, 3GB RAM, 64GB onboard storage, 1080p camera. The high FPS (80) of the glasses made the lower framerate much more noticeable on other products.

  • Atheer Labs smart glasses: One of the more impressive gesture-based AR control setups, with accurate hand tracking and fluid movement.

While they did not have a direct presence at AWE, Oculus held a dedicated press conference for their Rift VR head-mounted display (HMD) the day after AWE concluded. The press conference outlined some basic details of the consumer version of the Oculus Rift, although was curiously missing more detailed hardware specifications. If Oculus hadn’t been clear that gaming is the primary focus for the Rift, it became clear after the expo. Rift-targeted games were showcased, with developers speaking on both successes and challenges developing for VR. Oculus plans to invest $10 million into the independent game development market, which is a great way to not only support development for the platform, but as support for indie development as a whole (even if $10 million is not much in the game development world). Also revealed was a partnership with Microsoft; along with the Rift shipping with an Xbox One controller as a means of input, Windows 10 is also slated to be completely compatible with Oculus Rift. Not to leave the question of input alone, Oculus also revealed a two-handed control prototype named Oculus Touch; motion and gesture control, combined with traditional joysticks and buttons, could hit a sweet spot for VR input. No release window was given for Oculus Touch, or even if it will be a finalized product, but what was shown was promising nonetheless.

Finally, there was E3 2015, and aside from the expected bombardment of game announcements, there was also some news from Microsoft and Sony on the ARVR front. Sony was relatively mum regarding Project Morpheus, but did spill a few interesting details; along with some of the planned games, Sony revealed plans to push developers towards local cooperative games, with the Morpheus headset included. This would include 1 person with a Morpheus headset along with 4 local, non-headset wearing players. The idea may seem a bit limiting, but an effort to make the traditionally anti-social act of using a VR headset slightly more social could be a success, especially among families.

Microsoft, on the other hand, devoted a large chunk of keynote time to Hololens, and specifically the AR device running Minecraft. This was yet another tech demo that is difficult to gauge in terms of accuracy to the product, but what was shown (3D navigation of a Minecraft world) was impressive. Likely, users can expect a lower resolution and much narrower field of view than shown in the demo. Even so, Hololens looks to be joining the ranks of high potential AR devices planned for the near future. The gaming potential makes this product unique among most AR devices, as the majority of AR products have been targeted towards data overlay.

We will be diving in to most of these areas in upcoming research, including VR HMDs, VR content, and AR devices and verticals. For now, we see Augmented Reality continuing as an enterprise-focused market, thanks to higher-cost devices and the types of verticals targeted (industry, medicine, etc.). VR will continue to be gaming-focused, with a growing emphasis on video and non-gaming entertainment content. These categories will continue to grow and expand, with more and more overlap between the two.