Augmented reality – AR – will take a big step forward later today when Apple launches iOS version 11. It includes ARkit, which is Apple’s new platform for running augmented reality apps, instantly putting the technology onto more than 300 million devices, as soon as the iOS update is downloaded.
At least, that was the hot gossip yesterday at the Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in San Francisco. It’s always risky to take Apple rumors at face value, but AR companies at the show are taking this one seriously.
Up until now, AR hasn’t gained much traction in the consumer market, Pokemon Go notwithstanding. But it has a growing foothold in industrial and business-to-business markets.
With augmented reality, a smart phone screen or totally geeked up glasses can overlay digital information on the real world. The photo above shows AR glasses displaying port labels for a circuit board as soon as the wearer looks at it. That kind of automatic information speeds up work and reduces errors.
I wrote about Vuzix, a company that makes AR glasses, nearly five years ago. They had great expectations – as did Google with its Glass product – for consumer applications, which were not fulfilled. Since then, they’ve focused on industrial applications and found happiness in vertical markets. One customer they talk about it is Airbus, the European airliner manufacturer. When workers are assembling complex wiring harnesses, the digital overlay on the Vuzix M300 glasses sorts out wires by color and tells them which hole each one needs to go into.
The immediate effect of Apple’s presumed announcement will be to boost the commercial side of the AR business. The cost of adopting the technology will drop to near zero for anyone who already has an iPhone, and the bar won’t be that much higher for someone who just buys one off the shelf. Pure consumer applications will be slower out of the gate, but with an instant market of hundreds of millions of users, it won’t take long to catch up.
It'll be small development companies like Sphero that turn wearable computing products like Vuzix's headset mounted smart phone video display into genuine augmented reality (AR) devices.
The Boulder, Colorado based company already has a neat gizmo on the market. It's a white plastic sphere about the size of a tennis ball that glows in different colors and rolls around on the floor, powered by an internal motor. You control it with an iOS or Android app via a Bluetooth link.
It scoots back and forth and around and around. There are games written for it, or you can race with your friends.
It's a blast to play with. Their booth at CES last week was packed with people waiting their turn to give it a try. It's definitely a toy. But it has a potentially serious side.
One of the apps written for it lets you steer it while pointing a tablet's camera at it and watching it on screen. Fun enough. But the app superimposes an animated figure over the white ball, so viewed on the screen it looks like a cartoon character is walking around the room and interacting with people.
Potential applications include video production – you could make your own live action Roadrunner cartoon – and telepresence.
Sphero has been around about a year. Its current product retails for $129 and software developer kits are available. On board sensors include an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetic reed switch. Battery charging is via induction, keeping the outside smooth.
An augmented reality (AR) product showed promise at last week's CES. Vuzix was showing its boom-mounted smart phone display. It's not light enough yet to mount on a pair of regular eyeglasses, but with a dedicated headset it's comfortably wearable.
The video display is small, but it's always in front of you and at most requires a brief glance to read. Right now AR apps require you to hold a smart phone up in front of you to see a data overlay on reality – the names of streets, say, or product information in stores. The Vuzix headset lets you do that hands free.
Right now, its battery life is limited. It's just in the prototype stage, so tests haven't been completed, but the units on display at CES were said to last about three hours on one charge with everything running at once: video camera and WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS radios.
Even without a link to a smart phone it's pretty capable. Its TI OMAP 4 processor running Android 4.1 puts it in roughly the same class as a Samsung Galaxy 2, without the mobile telecoms capability.
It's expected to ship in the second half of this year at a price point in the $500 range. A software developer kit – an emulator application that runs on Windows – is available now.
The headset is just the first stop on the Vuzix AR roadmap. They have a mock-up of a pair of glasses that they hope to have working by CES next year. Similar to the Google Glass concept, it would provide a full field-of-view data AR overlay.
That's the point when AR starts to move from a novelty and, at best, occasional convenience to being a full time, commonplace tool. It'll take a while to develop to that point. Developers will need time with working units to come up with truly useful apps and then consumers will have to embrace that utility. But by CES 2015 or 16, you'll be able to see the world through data-enhanced eyes.
Three different approaches to home automation and a sleek wearable video eyepiece and camera stood out from from the crowd tonight at CES Unveiled. More than 70 companies demonstrated new products at the annual pre-show press event. Mostly, it was headphones, speakers, big displays, mobile phone cases and various other accessories.
The new OLPC XO 4 tablet/computer was a delight, more about that here.
The other standouts were…
Vuzix Smart Glasses. Think of a big Bluetooth earpiece with a boom that extends out past your nose, put a small video eyepiece and camera on the end of the boom, and you have the Vuzix product. Pictures of the prototypes have been floating around the Internet for months, but now they have a working model. It's a definite follow up item for when the show floor opens later in the week.
Lowes showed their do-it-yourself Iris home automation platform. It's another one I'll be looking at more closely in coming days. Technical details were lacking tonight, so it's hard to say exactly how they're doing it. But what they're doing is packaging a home automation hub (suspiciously similar to the MiOS Vera unit) into installation kits and certifying third party products – light switches, thermostats, locks, you name it – as compatible and supported. They might just be able to build a consumer-friendly ecosystem around it.
Allure Energy is doing one cool thing now, and setting up for aggregating more products and functionality later. Their EverSense thermostat talks to a smart phone app and figures out where you are – in the house, far away or on your way home – and adjusts the temperature accordingly. The kicker is that the thermostat is also a hub. Once people get used to using it, Allure has an opening to add more devices and then piece by piece build a more comprehensive home automation solution.
I'm not exactly sure what to make of Parrot's Flower Power plant monitor. It's a sensor you stick in the dirt next to your favorite plant and then it connects to your smart phone via Bluetooth. It lets you know how the plant is doing, stuff like whether it needs watering. In one sense, it's a one trick pony. But the idea of using your phone as the hub and connecting via Bluetooth on an every-so-often basis could have some interesting applications.
No ground-shifting product announcements tonight, but there's always tomorrow. That's when the big press conferences happen.