AR is either the future or the present, depending on who you ask, but whichever way you swing it we've still got a long road ahead. Sure, you can pick up a pair of AR smartglasses today, but the AR we really want - the type that movies and TV have been teasing us with for far too long - where is that? And what needs to happen before we have it in our hands (or on our faces)?
As part of Wareable's AR Week, we've been asking the biggest names in the field to tell us the biggest challenges they face in getting from A to R. What's the hold up? When will we arrive? Is this it? Here's what some of the leading names in AR had to say.
We still haven't solved the big one
Edward Tang, CTO of Avegant
Avegant made a splash this year with the reveal of its light field technology. This allows its prototype AR goggles to act like the human eye, creating multiple focal points and letting you focus on virtual objects of varying distance with no discernible difference to how you normally would. It's cool - trust us, we've tried it. But until other parts of the puzzle are solved, CTO Edward Tang thinks it will be hard to cross the bridge between business and the more demanding you and I.
"If we're talking about enterprise it's a little bit less challenging, because the enterprise market are willing to accept worse. This thing could be more expensive, it could be bigger; as long as it does what they need it to do they'll be happy. That's why the enterprise market is going to take off first."
Despite 'cracking' light field technology, something Magic Leap is rumored to have in its own secret headset, Tang thinks it's the visual side that needs the best brains right now. "These devices have a lot of different sensors, and processing and communication - all of these things are generally solved or solvable. Right now there are some very key things in the display side that haven't been solved. These are the most valuable and most difficult challenges."
To find the experts, you must look elsewhere
Ryan Pamplin, VP and Evangelist at Meta
If you haven't heard of Meta, where have you been hiding? The AR company is now among the biggest players in the field, with a wider field of view and a more affordable entry point than HoloLens (the Meta 2 for developers costs $949 next to HoloLens's $3000 price tag). It might not have as big a profile as HoloLens right now, but it's squarely on the map and attracting big talent.
"The biggest challenge is making all of the incredibly complicated interdependent technologies work harmoniously," says Meta's Ryan Pamplin. "If the timing is off on your cameras or your sensors by even milliseconds then everything feels bad, feels wrong. Things don't stick. Getting all those algorithms to work reliably consistently."
I think the challenges we're facing today are probably very similar to what Elon Musk faced with early Tesla
Finding the right talent in a nascent industry is the other big issue of now, according to Pamplin, and many of the hires are coming right out of academia. These are people who have written papers on big, crazy ideas, but lack the resources to prove them.
"There aren't just people you can just go hire - people who actually understand this stuff. This is pioneering a completely new field. I think the challenges we're facing today are probably very similar to what Elon Musk faced with early Tesla. It's like, Ok I need a battery engineer - who can build a battery that can power a car that can go 150 miles per hour? Oh yeah that's never existed before. Who's an expert in that? No one."
Picking two is easy, three not so much
Greg Sullivan, Director of Communications for Windows and Devices Group
HoloLens has played a big part in placing AR and MR in the public consciousness, and right now it's putting most of its focus on business and enterprise. Microsoft's Greg Sullivan's view on getting to our dream AR? Trading off elements is really, really hard.
"We want to make these devices immersive, more comfortable and more affordable. And if you think about those dimensions its like the old consulting game - you want scope, cost or schedule - pick two. We have these contradictory goals, and part of the magic of whats happening is figuring out all three of these. How do you do all of them?"
People won't wear ugly
Paul Travers, CEO of Vuzix
The head and face are the most sacred fashion centers of the body
Smartglass maker Vuzix is already a well established name in enterprise, but its AR goggles are slowly moving from the fashionably questionable towards something more socially acceptable.
"One of the biggest challenges within the enterprise space is delivering a flexible and wearable device that can withstand the rigors of an eight-hour shift across diverse enterprises," says Paul Travers, Vuzix CEO.
This year, Vuzix is building closer towards the consumer - to what's referred to as the 'prosumer' - with its Blade 3000 glasses. These are meant for consumer-facing professionals, like doctors and dentists. "Adoption and technology validation among enterprise customers will be the first step to accessing a massive market opportunity within augmented reality," says Travers, "but for the mass consumer market to adopt, the technology needs to disappear and look like a traditional pair of fashion sunglasses."
Everything is working against each other
Ernesto Martiez, Ph.D. at Kopin Corporation
The utility in business for AR is already there, with little to no demand for these things to actually look good. But Kopin is one of the few trying to make something people will wear outside of the workplace. Its Solos cycling glasses are like Google Glass for your bike, but look much, much better. To get them even to this point has taken a lot of thought and compromise.
The trade-off between [battery] and weight is much harder in AR
"Smartglasses present one of the most difficult design challenges as the blend of ergonomics, intuitive human interfaces and fashion all work heavily against each other." says Kopin's Martiez. "The head and face are the most sacred fashion centers of the body and have to inspire the passion and desire of the user to want to wear them."
"For Solos, we worked extensively with the US Olympic cycling team to keep simplifying the design to ensure the product worked in in all situations. It was tough making the tradeoffs but I believe we succeeded."
You can't just mass-produce anything
Asaf Ashkenazi, CEO of Everysight
"The trade-off between [battery] and weight is much harder in AR," says Everysight's CEO. And when it comes to AR eyewear that mimics traditional glasses, nothing should disturb you at all the moment you turn the display off, he adds.
Low cost is an obvious wish for any product, but this also means a constant struggle that limits the ability to pioneer new tech. "That means you need to use existing manufacturing processes and tools, and not non-mass production proven technologies."
"I see today companies that are using lasers as their image source. Although lasers are very efficient and they have lots of brightness, I can tell you the technology has been there for many, many years, but it didn't last because of safety requirements."
The future is AR