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Reflections from the 10th Annual Augmented World Expo

Augmented World Expo (AWE) 2019 recently wrapped up, and we spent our time there immersed in conversations around extended reality (AR/XR/VR), its various form factors, limitations and opportunities. This conference has evolved dramatically over the last 10 years, and along with it, the spatial computing hardware that makes it all possible has evolved as well.  In the last decade we’ve evolved from mobile Augmented Reality (AR) to wearable computing with smart glasses, heads up displays, and Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. All these form factors have gone through many iterations defining and refining their feature set as the technology advances. Yet in many ways, it feels like the industry is still in its infancy, a new beginning in which the whole community was abuzz with excitement about the future…the energy at the show was palpable.

Here are a few insights from the conference that I’ll be covering:  

- the current evolution of experiential technology and spatial computing

- what’s working in the XR industry and what might be the next inflection points

- challenges and opportunities our customers and partners in immersive training will encounter

From the conference

Through the conversations and talks at the conference you could really sense the global nature of this industry. People from around the world gathered in California to share their perspectives and showcase the next generation of technology. It was fascinating to witness how the space has evolved and is rapidly maturing. The challenge for most will be the pace at which things are changing, and how to keep up.

As with every new technology or major movement, a filter between the hype vs. reality should be applied. Indeed, over the last decade there has been a lot of hype and envisioning around what these systems would eventually allow us to do, but with the advent of better chipsets, computer vision technologies and the miniaturization of technology, spatial computing has finally arrived at compelling form factors that can deliver on the value proposition, especially in an enterprise training context. This year is a breakout year, and many of the tech and conversations I experienced at AWE 2019 will be catalysts for a new paradigm in enterprise-scale use of XR.

The smart glasses space has yet to provide a form factor that is truly empowering, comfortable, and deployable at scale within the Enterprise, but we are closer than ever. Qualcomm announced the launch of their Snapdragon Smart Viewer reference design, which will become one of the next form factors to be commercialized in the smart glasses space. In this case, they’ve designed a smartphone with usb-c that will allow it to provide the compute power as well as connectivity into wearable glasses which will be loaded with as many sensors as can be supported by their chipset. It’s still in a "coming soon" phase, though early demonstrations and technology developments point to a bright future in this form factor. New offerings like the more affordable nReal headset, and the launch of Lenovo’s ThinkReality suggest we are at a critical point in the development of augmented reality headsets. Interestingly based on a Digi-Capital survey, Apple’s still unannounced potential wearable smart glasses are also on the mind of many of the content developers in the space. Smart glasses have been a compelling idea for quite a while, and major players are now moving into the space that Microsoft Hololens, Magic Leap One, Google Glass and others have spearheaded.

Meanwhile VR solutions continue to provide real traction and value in training and education across a broad range of vertical markets, many of which are benefiting from the returns of the investment in terms of retention, accuracy and efficiency in employee training. Great VR hardware is already here, while AR hardware is still in early stages - waiting for a headset that will balance the right compromises and deliver on its promise of empowering people in real world situations. In many cases, and in our EMPACT® VR training platform specifically, participants learn about the futuristic AR interfaces that will soon be possible, while they experience training simulations in VR. The best in show Varjo demo of the XR-1 demonstrates this concept really well. This VR/AR combination is powerful, allowing the participant to go from a real-world experience to a full virtual simulation within the same session. The reason why the combination is so powerful: AR and heads up displays can bring you information or a simulation of anything to your real-world view, whereas VR can both transport you anywhere and bring you anything. Companies that can successfully leverage the best of both worlds, will be leaps and bounds ahead of their competition. You can imagine how something this powerful can completely change the way companies approach product design or new construction, and how it will help fast track the training and knowledge foundation for the workforce. It’s worth mentioning the Oculus Quest was released a few weeks before this event, and it was (not surprisingly) a common discussion thread and exciting platform in the conversations. The Quest represents a milestone for our industry because it’s an all-in-one, standalone headset that can now be purchased at a fraction of the cost of previous systems, yet still provides the high-level of agency and fidelity achieved with dedicated desktop solutions.  It also happens to have a very useful demonstration of pass-through augmented reality in its on-boarding process. For companies that want to rollout global training initiatives or any complex capital projects where multiple vendors need to work together on a design, for example, this kind of headset is going to make it much easier to deploy scalable training systems without breaking the bank.

On the dedicated professional desktop simulation side, the headsets are also evolving rapidly - increasing fidelity, field of view and blending realities from fully real to fully virtual and everything in between. We were very happy to see new offerings and upgrades from professional high end VR headsets like the VIVE Pro Eye with its eye-tracking update, the XTAL headset which offers increased field of view and biometric integrations for simulations, and the Varjo XR-1 with its high-density displays and highly realistic video pass-through.  Because this is such a fast-moving industry, it will be incredibly important for simulation makers to ensure their content is compatible with the ever evolving hardware. The tech just keeps getting faster and better which is fantastic for businesses that want to adopt its use and receive its benefits on a broad scale. But it also means on the content creation side, you’ll want to partner with hardware-agnostic development shops so your solutions are transferable across different form factors and leveraged to fit evolving use cases.

My two cents...

The hardware is getting better, and so are the tools and 2019 is a breakout year for enterprise-wide adoption of XR. The possibilities of utilizing this medium beyond research and experimentation has made a significant leap forward the last couple of years, and it won’t be long before almost every Fortune 1000 company has a VR and AR initiatives. These technologies could prove to be the best way for us to interface with the increasing complexity of our world. From immersive data analytics visualizations, to procedurally generated virtual humans driven by natural language interfaces for artificially intelligent virtual assistants, the simulations and the tools required to build them are opening the doors for some amazing opportunities. Experiences are becoming increasingly realistic with new content tools, and if you’re a creator, they can be created much more efficiently without sacrifice to quality. Incidentally, the theme for AWE 2019 was “The Year of the Creator” – as many new tools and tech has matured to empower a bright future for XR. Worth mentioning that a couple of days after the conference Apple announced the launch of three creation tools, ARKit 3, Reality Composer and Reality Kit – planting a compelling stake in the ground on the future of computing.  

Stay tuned… we’re watching the space carefully and are constantly evaluating the latest tech to see what makes the most sense for our clients. (I love this job!) Testing new headsets, development tools, and designing new features so our EMPACT training platform can leverage these emerging technologies is all part of the task at hand, and it is only getting better.