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Blog January 16, 2018

What I Learned About Augmented Reality at CES 2018

Augmented Reality (AR) was on full display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Like its cousin Virtual Reality (VR), AR is definitely one of the hot topics in the world of technology, and as a result, there were countless vendors at the CES demoing knockoff and inelegant AR visor products. Most of these devices had a very limited field of view, which made it hard to see the actual images. It was like a postage stamp size display in front of your face. Many of the demos were unimpressive, such as asking the user to look at a magazine cover to see the buildings are popping out of the cover as opposed to being flat. Even with these relatively simple applications, the products suffered from poor motion tracking. In my opinion, there's some processing going on in the visor and it's just not fast enough. At the show, there was an area dedicated startup companies, and many of these devices were being introduced in that space. I saw some components being engineered and developed that will eventually lead to much better solutions. Maybe next year, it'll be a different situation with much better devices, but right now it's still is very much open territory for companies to come in and be disrupters.

One company that was doing something interesting was RealWear, who was demonstrating technology similar to the AR rigs that could be used in an industrial and controlled environment. Instead of a little window of AR where images are laid over what you're seeing in reality, this technology shows data, such as performance metrics related to different components in your supply chain. The data was not superimposed on the background - it was a real-time monitor of information that functioned better than other solutions because it stayed within the limitations of the currently available technology.

This sort of application has enormous potential. Imagine you are an advisor and you're walking through a production facility. Without skipping a beat, you could know how you are doing against your tolerances-all right there, all hands free. This sort of "heads-up" display technology might be closer to mixed reality, but regardless of what you want to call it, this is definitely the most viable iteration of this technology today.

RealWear's solution was mounted in a hard hat, making it extremely comfortable and ergonomic. Every other visor I tried was uncomfortable, improperly balanced, and difficult to wear for more than a few minutes. If you are walking in a warehouse, you obviously don't want your visibility impeded in a potentially dangerous environment. I think Oculus and Vive have really set the standard for what a comfortable VR headset should feel like, but in this visor landscape, there's a lot of ergonomic and industrial design improvements to be made.

Another interesting development in the VR space is that several companies demonstrated visors that used reflection as opposed to direct projection. Instead of using a little arm that extends past the lens with a projector that shines towards your eyes, these visors are projecting from your forehead and out to what are essentially oversized sunglasses. So, you're not looking at the projector - you're looking at the reflection of the projector on the lens. This solution actually works a lot better, giving you a larger field of view and making it easier to see what's going on. I don't know if it's better or worse in terms of overlaying concerning depth of field, but it was certainly more comfortable and a more convincing experience.

At this point, I still don't think members of the workforce should fully adopt the AR technology. It's not quite there, but I do feel that there will be benefits in this area once these designs get a little bit more refined. This is unlike VR, which is initially being driven by gamers and consumers. One of the main reasons for this is that people at work are more concerned with functionality over style. If you go to a bar and you wear VR goggles, you are going to look pretty ungainly. But, if it's part of your job and you're wearing a hardhat with a camera, people will likely be less judgmental. So, in my opinion, before we get broad adoption in the consumer space, the form factor, comfort level and the overall aesthetics must be vastly improved. However, those improvement don't necessarily apply as much to a workforce environment where the technology would be integrated with an existing uniform. Ultimately, much like Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality (particularly the headsets) needs more maturity before it will be fully ready for widespread adoption. Regardless, I'm excited for the opportunities it presents based on what I experienced at this year's CES!