In May of 2014, Google announced that their wearable augmented reality glasses, Google Glass, would be available to the public. Exactly eight months later, Google stopped its production and tentatively set its return date to sometime in 2017. Google Glass was an absolute failure. The glasses costed $1,500, but not even a price tag that high could save the company from major losses. Google X lost over $280 million in 2015 partly because of the lack of revenue generated by the glasses. What happened? Why did a technologically advanced product from a reputable company flop so badly? And why does augmented reality have such a large amount of public support now, only three years later? To answer these questions, one has to understand the path that augmented reality has followed during the past decade.
The term ‘augmented reality’ was first coined in 1990 by a Boeing researcher named Tom Caudell. Prior to that point, augmented reality was used in very particular industries. The military used AR to create wearable units for soldiers. Sportsvision put a yellow line over football fields during games to indicate a first down. Naturally, NASA was also using augmented reality technology before it was cool. Map data would be overlaid to improve navigation during flights in certain aircraft.
When Caudell first used the phrase, it was meant to describe a digital display used by aircraft electricians that blended virtual graphics onto a physical reality. That definition actually holds relatively well to this day. Today, augmented reality is known as “the interaction of superimposed graphics, audio and other sense enhancements over a real-world environment that’s displayed in real-time”. Whether you’re looking through a cellphone camera or AR glasses, information will pop up on the screen. That can come in the form of helpful tips, directions and suggestions, or it can be as entertaining as dinosaurs and zombies virtually roaming around the streets.
At the turn of the century, augmented reality was picking up steam. Advancements in AR technology allowed it to become more mainstream. Car manufacturers used augmented reality as a new way to offer vehicle service manuals. The entertainment industry continued to play around with this intriguing technology; Esquire Magazines used AR to allow readers to make their covers come alive using their mobile devices. ARToolkit was introduced to the public, providing the public with an open-source software library. The library has countless tools that enable users to build powerful AR applications, with over 200,000 people using the latest release of ARToolkit to create projects. Its signature features such as camera orientation tracking and optical stereo calibration provided the groundwork for many of the complex applications that are used today.
With the explosion of mobile technology, AR now has the chance to gain widespread popularity. And thankfully it is taking that opportunity! In 2016, over $1.1 billion was invested in the research and development of AR and VR technology (virtual reality could have a blog post of it’s own… maybe later!).
Some of the biggest companies in the world are embracing the evolving and ever-expanding technology. Apple introduced ARKit with the release of iOS 11. ARKit is similar to the ARToolkit in the sense that it provides developers a framework to build augmented reality applications. The iPhone X’s TrueDepth camera give some pretty cool opportunities to make AR programs yourself. There have been several noticeably successful apps that were made using Apple’s ARKit, such as IKEA Place and ChessAR. There are even rumors that Apple is testing out AR glasses similar to Google Glass. Hopefully they have a little more luck than Google if they do launch the glasses.
Other companies are also pushing augmented reality to its fullest potential. One of our favorite messaging apps, Snapchat, seamlessly integrates AR into its product. The fun filters that everyone uses are a type of augmented reality. It uses the physical world as a layer on which it can put different animations and designs. The dog filter and Bitmoji performances are simple examples of this technology, but adequately display the logic behind them. The camera must first recognize the surface it must project onto. Then it must track that surface even if there are interferences such as changes in light or distance. At that point, it can project the information onto the surface.
Examples like these are just the beginning. The innovation of newer and better technology have fueled the possibilities of AR. Smartphones now provide a medium through which everyone can experience an augmented reality. Snapchat is one of the apps that is subtly helping people become comfortable with this fairly new idea, but there was a fad that really got people into the technology: PokemonGO. PokemonGO showed people that we are at a point where AR is feasible and effective. Despite being a simplistic use of AR, the app grew interest in the idea of a new reality combined with our current one.
To The Future!
As I previously mentioned, augmented reality has recently picked up the public momentum it needed. As developers refine the technology and new applications are created, AR will become more prevalent than ever. I can’t see the trend stopping. Augmented reality has the potential to provide so many services that it must keep growing. For example, AR may get to the point where it can provide doctors with accurate diagnoses just by looking at a patient. It could provide people with information about the city they’re walking in as they walk down the streets. AR could tell you information about people as you look at them (think the Black Mirror episode where you can see people’s social media by looking at them, just without the downsides). These ideas may seem far-fetched but they are closer to existence than one may imagine.
Now, Back to Google Glass
To wrap this up, I want to get back to the failure that was Google Glass. Although now it has become a niche industry wear, it failed in 2015 for several reasons. Privacy was one of the biggest concerns. The idea that one could be recorded without you knowing scared a lot of people. It gave Google Glass a bad reputation that it couldn’t shake. Wearable technology also wasn’t mainstream at the time. The public thought it was unnatural and didn’t look good, so nobody wanted to wear it. Combine those factors with the outrageous price and you have a product that won’t fare too well.
With this being said, I believe the future is bright for wearable technology, specifically those that implement AR. The negative perception around wearable tech is slowly fading and as augmented reality gets better, more people will want to use it. Augmented reality has the potential to do great things for society. It’s just a matter of actualizing it.
Want sources? There you go! Want to learn more about AR? Comment or feel free to reach out to me! It’s such an interesting topic, I could talk about this for hours.