There is an immense amount of discussion around Augmented Reality (AR) in mobile devices, and for good reason. The value of AR on existing hardware cannot be ignored. However, there is a great deal of activity within head-worn devices, especially those that can realistically be released into the consumer market. Vuzix, a leader in AR smart glasses, is releasing a consumer-friendly, form-factor glasses product called Blade to the general public.
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More Viable Hardware Met with Question of Value
There is an immense amount of discussion around Augmented Reality (AR) in mobile devices, and for good reason. The value of AR on existing hardware cannot be ignored. However, there is a great deal of activity within head-worn devices, especially those that can realistically be released into the consumer market. Vuzix, a leader in AR smart glasses, is releasing a consumer-friendly, form-factor glasses product called Blade to the general public. North (previously Thalmic Labs) is positioning itself to be a fashionable smart glasses provider that is similar to regular glasses vendors and is backed by Amazon. Facebook has confirmed ongoing activity in AR as well. Integration with smart assistants, as seen with Vuzix Blade and North, will help to add value and potential use for consumers. However, there is still the question of true value and use cases for consumers, especially when one considers that the prices of these devices are over US$1,000.
Looming Consumer Concern
A lack of AR knowledge has given way to a greater knowledge base that continues to grow. This has had the side effect of shifting conversation away from “what can this technology be used for” to “how can I leverage this technology to achieve the desired results.” This is a common transition in nascent markets, but the passing of this benchmark means that AR is maturing at a strong rate. Only two years ago, the general knowledge of AR was miniscule; now there are conversations around targeted use cases. Also, Return on Investment (ROI) is a positive indicator of growth and confidence in the technology and its promised benefits. While this is mostly true within the enterprise, the consumer space is also seeing this trend of knowledge expansion and discussion, albeit in a more limited manner.
Apple’s continued customer-facing push into AR for iOS—not to say anything of the continued behind-the-scenes acquisition, hiring, and Research and Development (R&D) activity in AR/Virtual Reality (VR)—are pivotal for the success of AR in the consumer environment. While there have been AR efforts before Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, they lacked marketing, polish, and, most importantly, first-party integration from the mobile parent companies. Apple’s ability to bake AR technology and content into every new iOS device not only will grow mobile AR significantly but also will grow AR customer knowledge as well as use. This positions Apple favorably for the AR market over the next few years, whether it stays mostly on mobile or transitions more to head-worn offerings. However, the actual value here is more universal, with developer interest, knowledge, and engagement getting a kick start before consumers really understand what they want. This creates a buffer period for content to mature and expand in scope, creating a content-rich environment for consumer engagement to thrive. The exact opposite has happened in VR, and the effects of that content starvation are still holding back the market today.
There are few companies that can bypass the value question through brand recognition, marketing, and user desire. Apple is leading that pack; however, until Apple brings their rumored head-mounted AR and/or VR device to market, those targeting the consumer smart glasses space face barriers in these areas without a killer use case or general demonstrable value to a potential buyer.
Required Marketing: Quantitative and Realistic
Competition with a smartphone changes the value conversation dramatically. Current consumer offerings on glasses are almost always parallel to smartphone applications and uses—the value added is hands-free access—and while that can indeed have value for some, it will not be enough to drive significant adoption. There is often more value in hands-free data access for enterprise users (although the same question arises there as well), especially as AR for mobile devices also grows in capability. If being hands free is not a requirement, then either traditional mobile device usage for digital data access or mobile device AR usage for AR capabilities are often better options. In a market dominated by ROI discussion, this can be the first talking point. The driving factor behind this is quantitative proof of value in the enterprise; for the consumer space, a realistic outlook factoring in pricing, content availability, developer opportunities, and marketing/branding activity is necessary. Understanding the potential shortcomings of a product or current and future barriers inherent in a market will help position and market a product or service more effectively.
Hype around these novel products will be like a roller coaster ride going forward. It will be difficult to predict which products bring attention and which go under the radar instead having every new product guarantee an influx of press and attention. Hype does wonders for covering up potential issues and gaps in capability. Without hype to drive purchases, questions of value are more detrimental to something like consumer smart glasses that are far from having a daily added value or a killer use case.
Smart glasses do represent a novel and revolutionary display technology, but to see success early in the market cycle is incredibly difficult. Show compelling content; simplify content access and usage; and properly target R&D, marketing, and end markets. The increase in general knowledge is a boon for the market end to end, but a more knowledgeable and addressable market is not a guarantee of success. Look for an uptick in quantitative metrics for enterprise use cases and realistic dives into consumer applications over the next 12 months, as companies search for their piece of the market.