With Augmented Reality, Every Man May Soon Be Iron Man, CES Panelists Say

by Brian Caulfield

The future tends to arrive ahead of schedule.

Self-driving cars roam California freeways. Mobile devices pack the power of supercomputers from a decade ago. And high-def displays can be found everywhere, almost for a song.

Neil Trevett, our VP of mobile ecosystems, joined a panel in front of an audience of more than 200 at the Consumer Electronics Show to talk about where early devices incorporating augmented reality, such as Google Glass, are heading.

The promise: a world where the boundaries between the real world and the online one begin to blur.

But there are challenges along the way. What, for example, are the ground rules for building applications that can provide people what they need to know? When can augmented reality become annoying? When does it get intrusive?

Time to Talk

It’s a discussion worth having now, panelists agreed, because augmented reality is fast becoming mainstream — thanks to the explosion in the power and portability of mobile processors and the growing sophistication of displays.

“It’s really a perfect storm of technological advancement conspiring to move us to a new form factor of devices, and this is really exciting,” Brian Mullins, founder and CEO of DAQRI, which develops augmented reality applications.

One catalyst: Google Glass. The augmented reality specs released last year caused a sensation. While they’re still not being sold to the general public, scores of people at CES are sporting the devices, which use a tiny screen to give users a quick connection to Google services.

“Google Glass has started a lot of conversation,” said Mullins. “That’s absolutely critical to moving the entire industry forward.”

NVIDIA's Neil Trevett, DAQRI's Brian Mullins, and Metaio's Thomas Alt
NVIDIA’s Neil Trevett, DAQRI CEO Brian Mullins and Metaio CEO Thomas Alt

Straight Out of Science Fiction

Another inspiration: science fiction, which ultimately inspired much of augmented reality. Movies such as “Minority Report” and “Iron Man” don’t just create demand for new products, they give technologists targets to aim for.

“The Iron Man display is what many of us have in our minds, it’s what we want to achieve,” Trevett said. “But to get to a truly wearable display, packed full of sensors and cameras, there’s a long way to go.”

What Works

When one audience member asked who’s doing a good job of building augmented reality consumer devices, there was a long silence from the panelists.

“Hollywood,” Mullins finally said. “They do a pretty damn good job most of the time. You see a lot of examples of what the potential is that we’re not quite able to reach today.”

Some fine tuning will be needed, though.

“I don’t want to be doing this,” Trevett said, waving his arms around. “And I don’t want to be doing this,” he said, tapping on his glasses. “And I don’t want to be talking out loud because people can hear me.”

One possible answer: Smart watches that allow users to control the information they’re getting with small, discrete gestures, Trevett said.

Another key is ensuring that what users see is immediately relevant. Panelist Thomas Alt, co-founder and CEO of Metaio, which builds augmented reality applications, cited an app created for Volkswagen that tells mechanics how to service and maintain vehicles.

“It’s not such a challenge to get content into augmented reality devices,” Alt said. “The challenge is making it relevant.”

Part of the solution: sensors that scan the world around a user. “If you’re going to be smart in what information you present to the user, you need to know what’s going on with the user,” Trevett said.

Future Shock

While depictions of augmented reality can inspire, the idea can creep some out. There’s already been a backlash against Google Glass, with some bars going so far as to post signs banning them.

Many people will need time to get used to the idea of head-mounted cameras. “When cell phones first got cameras, if you took a picture in a grocery store the manager would chase you out of the store,” Mullins said.

“The social engineering aspects are just as important as the computer engineering aspects,” Trevett said. “The only way to do it is to try it.”

The Creep Factor

As an example of what can go wrong, Mullins cited a scenario where users could enter a bar, “capture” certain patrons, use personal details on their social media profiles and take advantage of them.

As augmented reality becomes more common, users will demand more control over the information available about them.

“I think it’s going to force the social media industry to provide users with more protections,” Trevett said. “When anyone can get your information, you want to have control over what that information is.”

Virtual Reality, Real Opportunities

Asked about opportunities to commercialize augmented reality, the panelists suggested entrepreneurs and engineers look for places where the experience is still awkward and stilted.

“Look for where users are not fully enabled to interact in a meaningful and enjoyable way,” Trevett said.