In just a few weeks, May 29, the annual conference AWE (Augmented World Expo) will again take place in Silicon Valley (Santa Clara, California, to be exact).
And while everyone will be on the lookout for the next big thing in augmented reality that comes from big players and little ones starting out, now is the possible day for Apple's AR laptops to be the perfect time to take a reflective look the most famous AR collection in the industry.
For this purpose, I managed to get AWE founder Ori Inbar (also founder and management partner of the investment company Super Ventures) to keep the AR flame alive for him and the event for almost a decade.
We covered a wide range of problems, including what changed about AR space, what needs to be changed, and what we both look for on the AR horizon.
Adario Strange: So, for the uninitiated, give us a quick primer on how AWE has started and what your background is. [1
I started an AR company back in 2009; it's called Ogmento. It was a very lonely experience. There were very few people out there who even knew what AR meant. So I joined with some other players in the industry, and we formed AWE. The first year was actually called ARE (Augmented Reality Event). A few years later we switched it to AWE. It was actually in the same place, in Santa Clara, California, but we took a very small amount of space compared to what we have this year.
Strange: OK, so that's the beginning but who's working with you on it today? I know Tom Emrich joined several years ago to help produce the event, but who else is involved?
Inbar: We have an organization called AugmentedReality.org that we founded to help with the event, and accelerate other activities in this industry. We set a target of 1 billion AR users by 2020. The event is now running in the US, Europe, Asia and Tel Aviv Israel since last year. We now also have 10 monthly meetings, in 10 cities around the world, many of them in the US, Toronto, Berlin and Tokyo.
The organization is basically me, along with a board that helps to support it. They are all entrepreneurs in the AR industry. And we work with a couple of groups that help to produce the event. Prospera Events, which is mainly focused on logistics, has helped us with the event since 2010 and we now have a couple of other groups that help with programming, sales and the audiovisual aspect of it.
Strange: When a traditional company mentions a specific target number of users, it is usually tied to a particular platform or product. So what does it mean, in practice, when you mention the target of 1 billion AR users by 2020? Where do you see these 1 billion users from?
Inbar: It was almost 10 years ago. We did not know which units people would use, so it was just the type of moonshot, a rally bug, to help us find a goal. It turned out, as the industry has advanced, most will be on smartphones, but also on smart glasses, projectors and what we call magic mirror experiences.
Strange: It makes me think of Facebook's publicly stated goal of 1 billion users in VR. Which do you think will reach 1 billion users first, AR or VR? Although VR enjoys very general attention and excitement in connection with games right now, I bet that AR will reach that number first, but what do you think?
Inbar: That's 2019, so we are just one year away from that goal, and I think it's pretty clear that the majority of that audience is on smartphones. Because there are already 3 billion smartphone users out there, and most are AR-enabled. So all you need is to build an application for these devices and get people to use it. I think we actually get pretty close to that number.
At VR, today it is around 10-20 million units. And growth is expected to go faster, perhaps 30 to 40% the year before. So, VR will grow, and it will be fine, but it will not match the numbers that we can have on smartphones.
Strange: In my research and reporting on VR and AR, I often think people generally dig against one or the other rather than being consistently engaging in both consistent. I started with a great focus on VR, but have gradually balanced my in-depth computer usage to about 50-50, AR and VR. What is your daily breakdown like?
Inbar: For an entire day I spent an average of one hour on VR in the evening, but I use AR all day, whether in office or outdoors, where I want to stay in reality, but I want to improve it. And I think it's quite typical when you apply that question to the rest of the world, where people use AR all day to stay in the workplace and collaborate with other people in reality. And then, when they come home, instead of sitting in front of the TV, they will immerse themselves in VR experiences that they cannot do otherwise.
Strange: We have recently published a series of posts that talk about the future for increased reality. In one section, I talk about the differences between AR and VR and why we should regard them as two distinct and most distinct areas of user cases.
In this area, a somewhat annoying substance that continues to come up is the idea of a hybrid device that combines both techniques into one product. But when I hear it, for me, what always comes to mind is a hovercraft. I mean we can make a vehicle that travels on both land and water, but that doesn't mean it's the most convenient device to spend time and attention on hybrid use. I am thinking that, at least in the short term, a hybrid VR / AR device is an impractical setting. But I think many people hope for a hybrid device so that it will be easier to sell various VR and AR solutions and platforms.
Perhaps in 15 years, when everything has become smaller in terms of components and form factors, it has changed, the technology will make it more feasible, but right now, let's say the next decade, it just seems like the wrong attitude. What do you think?
Inbar: I agree completely. I think right now it is almost a waste of time to talk about a hybrid device because it is not relevant. There are two different units and two different use cases. But as you said, sometime in the future, 15, 20, 50 years, I imagine a point where you can open your eyes to do AR and close your eyes to do VR.
Strange: Last year's AWE event was a pretty good representation of established industry players and new launches in AR space. But while I have attended a large number of technical conferences for many years, I have just started coming to AWE events, so my perspective is probably very different from yours. Give me a sense of how the event has changed through your own lens as the founder of the past decade.
Inbar: In the beginning it was just the enthusiasts. But now it is a completely different world. I look back at the companies and the people who participated in the first event, and it is interesting that there were some companies and Fortune 1000 companies. Like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, they were some of the first pioneers to try AR and VR, so they were there in the first year to check what happened.
But now I think that the last couple of years, the big change you see due to many return projects showing significant uses for business, there are a large number of companies that go into this event to really check out the latest solutions whether it is small glasses that target companies or software solutions that target the company – stock picking, remote service – all such cases that are very mature than you saw before.
What we hear from exhibitors is that they go to CES because it is mandatory, and they go to the Mobile World Congress because it is such a big event. But when they go to AWE, one hundred percent of the audience is relevant to them, either as customers or partners, hiring or just getting people inspired.
Strange: It leads to something else I wanted to get into, which is something we think of a lot here at Next Reality. Right now we are still looking at AR as edge technology, but within the next five years, with the advent of Apple's AR smartglasses, as well as other solutions, AR and the software that drives it are becoming more common. At that time, conferences such as CES and others are beginning to double on their interaction with AR as an industry. What are you doing then?
Inbar: It's a good question we are starting to think about. I came into this for not being in business. I am an entrepreneur. My goal, my passion, is to see this industry become commonplace. So, essentially, when it becomes commonplace, you can say that our job is clear. But there will still be a need to renew and direct the industry towards the potential of the spatial industry. I think it's probably like a 10-year trip from today.
Strange: Yes it reminds me of what happened to the Macworld conference. When Apple began to hold its own events, the Macworld conference seemed to be confusing rather than inventing it. It is, of course, a brief way to look at it, there are other factors involved, but I don't think it necessarily needs to disappear. So I guess that is the overall strategy for both of us, which will evolve as space develops into the ordinary.
Inbar: Exactly. I think there is always room for innovation, especially with spatial computers where we are in the very first stages. We need to develop a new visual approach that I do not believe we have yet. What does it mean to interact in a world where everything is visual and around you, and not on a two-dimensional screen? So there is a lot to do there.
Strange: On the theme of the conference, I have had some discussions with women in the in-depth calculation space on how things look when it comes to representation at VR conferences against AR events. From my vantage point, it seems as if I meet more women in leadership positions and in the spotlight on VR events (founders, developers, enthusiasts, etc.), but it seems less so on strict AR events.
I thought originally This was perhaps just my thought, but some of the discussions I have had with women in technology have echoed my recognized unscientific assessment of the two spaces. I noticed when I went to AWE last year, it felt like a very common technical conference, because it seemed to involve more men at the event than women. I wonder if you agree or disagree with this view, and if you agree, you can discuss what your team does to perhaps help change that dynamism.
Inbar: I'm really glad you brought this up. This has actually been a very important topic for us. I cannot comment on the other events, but in our events we attach great importance to getting women on the stage. I would argue that we probably have the highest relationship between men and women compared to other major events [tech]. If you go through our speaker list, it's probably about 40% [women speakers] which is unchangeable for any other conference of this size. The partnership that we have done with Women in the XR and WXR Fund and other women-focused organizations in the XR has proven to be very beneficial for that purpose.
As for the audience, it is still slightly skewed towards men, but I do not think as much as you look at other major conferences.
Strange: How do you think everything will shake out the next four to five years in the Terms of the advanced AR headset manufacturers compared to these slightly lower levels like the Nreal Light, or if it becomes reality, Apple smartglasses?
Inbar: There are probably 50 manufacturers of smartglasses right now, not even counting VR headsets. Some of them went into operation last year, as you know. The new ones come out, like Nreal, Rokid and some others, which I think are quite typical of this stage in the industry. And many investors and critics say, "How can a small business compete with Apple or Google?" But you can even say about Magic Leap. It is very well financed, but it is still small compared to some of the big players, so "how can they compete?"
I think we have seen in some technical cycle that yes, the big players have an advantage but, in many cases, they cannot make the transition to the next cycle. So then you have new companies that are emerging and taking over. I think it could definitely happen now, although smartglasses seem like a very difficult problem to solve. I definitely see some of the little players who manage to at least take a niche and run with it.
What Qualcomm did to Intel in the mobile chip space is something no one predicted. How can Intel not take over chips for mobile devices? And I think we could see the same thing now [in the AR space]. Some companies are building next-generation screens for smartglasses. Some of them are still in stealth mode, and they may become equivalent to Qualcomm, where everyone, whether Apple or Google or others, will use their screens as they are the best and smallest.
Strange: We recently published a story about the AR cloud and the issue of trust and integrity as we move forward in AR space. Part of the problem may relate to relying on your AR cloud data with a foreign company, in some cases from China, which has recently been in the Huawei user protection news, or just allows your moves and what you see through Smartglasses should be tracked by "something" company. Remember that this is not just a foreign AR start-up problem, it also speaks for some of the problems that are being played on Facebook, which is another company that is working to release an AR laptop. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about it on your site?
Inbar: First and foremost in the case of the Chinese market, you have probably seen the Digi Capital report which predicts that the Chinese market will be the largest market in the world for AR hardware and software, just for the great size of the country. So it is definitely something that no one can ignore. We went with AWE to China in 2016 to get to know the market. We couldn't ignore it.
On the question of trust and integrity, I believe that what we see today is just a clue of what will come in the future. When you have a camera that points to everything you do and analyzes it, these problems will be one million times larger than they are today. Talking about the AR cloud, I can't see any American people using AR clouds managed by China, and vice versa.
Strange: But what if they do not know that a Chinese company handles the AR cloud do they use? As I found in my previous reporting, especially on hoverboard manufacturers, Chinese companies in many cases operated with a US address and an English name, but were based in China. But many American consumers assumed that the sometimes dangerous products they bought were US-based, with the same responsibility as any other American company. As AR smart glasses become cheaper and more widespread for brands coming from different manufacturers, I see that this becomes a potential problem for AR space also in the case of AR cloud data.
Inbar: That That would be a problem. But it's typically like Huawei, most in the United States didn't know about their alleged routines, and now they know, and now there's this backlash. I think it will be your job and my job to make sure we discover such things so that consumers are well-informed about what they are using, especially when privacy becomes such a big issue in these cases.
Strange: In the trust area, you drive one of the largest in-depth components out there, but you also have this large AR investment fund. It seems that there is potential for potential conflicts of interest regarding who gets access to what, and who is represented in what way. Do you get questions about it?
Inbar: That's a fair question. And we have raised this issue since we started. Legally there are two different organizations: it is non-profit making the event and the VC organization that makes the investments. But at the end of the day, it's all in the people. And if you follow some of my work over the past 12 years, I have advised and helped thousands of AR launches free of charge, for love in the game, and have joined them and helped them, whether it's AWE or beyond. In our mind, we have a very difficult path between what we do to continue to grow the society and help drive the adoption of AR as an industry against what we do on the investment side.
So with our portfolio companies, We spend a little more time, but we make sure that no confidential information passes from one page to the other. I think if you talk to companies, either at the event, in our societies, as well as in our portfolio, I believe that you see that there is strong support for these ethics.
Strange: I recently had the opportunity to use HoloLens 2, and it completely changed my opinion on the company's efforts. I was not a fan of the first unit (HoloLens 1) in any way, from the fit to the experience. But HoloLens 2 can be my favorite device from Microsoft next to the Xbox. But it's still framed as a corporate entity, so it's not likely to become a regular vector for AR to become popular. With that in mind, I wonder what you think is the biggest obstacle to AR exploding into the ordinary?
Inbar: Content. People who understand that there are some things they will "have" to use smartglasses. It will generate demand for more. Companies like ODG and Meta have made their shares by mistake, but one of the most important things is to get to a smaller size and lower cost, you have to produce these units in large numbers, in millions. And until there is a demand for millions of such devices, there is no way we can get there.
I think we are now coming close to it. You see 100,000 unit orders for HoloLens 2 [via the US military] and we recently heard that RealWear got orders for 10,000 units from a tool company. So you start to see the numbers grow to a point where we could make the production of these units much cheaper and allow miniaturization of the various components.
Much of [mainstream adoption] is education. Before you enter the AR and VR you do not really know what you are missing. You can't really learn it from videos. And that training takes time. So the education, plus understanding of the need, will create a demand. It makes it possible for the entire industry to come to a point where it is mature and produces the units that we all want.
It is also about the display technology. Most of the units today use waveguides, which has been good for us to get to where we are today. But you will not be able to run to where we need to go when it comes to miniaturizing the glasses and solving some of the big problems in the screen quality. I think it's pretty clear to me today; The next generation of technology involves retina projection, which was invented in the early 90s. Magic Leap has built its major investment rounds on that idea, but has not delivered it.
Strange: Approved. Back when I met them in my office in New York in 2015, it is the dynamics described for me to touch the interest in the product and the company. But that's not what they finally revealed. I think that is what lies behind a lot of the negative media that the company has over the past year following the debut of Magic Leap One. I think the Magic Leap One is a perfect unit. It's just not what they promised early.
Inbar: That technology, we are beginning to see the early stages of it with North's Focals smartglasses. It will be necessary to really get a form factor that looks like regular glasses – and overcome problems with brightness and focus and even occlusion – it is almost impossible with waveguides today.