Augmented Reality – Phone or Glasses?

Augmented Reality – As a reader, you know by now about our obsession with virtual and augmented reality. We believe that these are key technologies that will influence or even define the user interface in the future. The question is when this will happen. 

So far virtual and augmented reality headsets exist for many years from small companies that do not have the marketing budgets or consumer recognition to drive the adoption of this technology in any meaningful way. These companies are doing a great job in spearheading the necessary technology and provide products that are ready for the mass market. Unfortunately, this has not translated in any meaningful market success measured in revenue dollars.

Yes, we talk about Google Glass a lot, especially for a product still in extended beta release. We worship Oculus Rift and all its promise in private demonstrations at every major CE conference and exhibition. We publish market forecasts that show undisputed belief in the technology by the publishing market research firms. What we can’t show you are the results of last year’s sales in millions of units sold to the public, because we are not there yet.

This is becoming a major risk for the technology. When Google Glass and Oculus Rift started showing the devices to software developers, this approach was considered very logical and to some degree even wise. What is a new gadget without all the apps that make it tick? The only product that was successful so far without – or with a very limited amount of – apps available at release was the first iPhone. Sometimes it is worth being the first. In other words, nobody blames Google for allowing developers to create apps before the Google Glass hardware will be released in mass quantities to the consumer market.

Here is my issue though, this describes the situation in the first half of 2012 and now we are closing in on the end of 2014. In terms of the CE life cycle of mobile devices, this time span equals several generations. This leads to a great risk which I see developing in this field.

While virtual reality has its captive market in gaming so to speak, augmented reality is a technology that helps people to ‘receive information that is otherwise not available’. Stop right there! This is exactly where the risk for augmented reality lies. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets can very easily provide the same information to the user. You want to look at a sign and get a translation? Just hold up your smartphone and the camera will see what you are seeing, adding the augmented reality information to your screen. Same idea and basically the same app.

Here is the issue.  There are a few hundred thousand people with an augmented reality headset spread around the globe today compared to a few billion smartphone users. Which group would you prefer to write an app for? I guess the answer is the smartphone, unless you are an app developer that hit the last 400 million dollar jackpot in the local lottery.

If the augmented reality headsets do not make it to the consumer market soon, the initial boost from the app developers may vanish. It also raises the question why Google has not come forward with a full blown market release. It just doesn’t feel right. Maybe there are some issues they have to address first before they feel that the product is ready for the consumer.  This may suggest that Google believes that augmented reality based on head mounted displays is not ready for ‘prime time’ yet. As an alternative and logical consequence, augmented reality technology may focus more on the smartphone market, where there is no shortage of potential users. – Norbert Hildebrand