Auki Labs CEO Nils Pihl recently spoke at the VR/AR Global Summit.
When the concept of augmented reality hit the mainstream, it did so with a bang. In the year 2009, interest for the phrase “augmented reality” exploded, and AR became one of the big buzzwords of that era.
This is the same year that “social media” started becoming a popular phrase, and in the summer of 2009 the two terms appear in Google Trends with a 5:12 ratio. For every 12 searches for “social media”, there were 5 searches for augmented reality. Augmented reality was getting almost half as much attention as one of the biggest trends ever.
But augmented reality didn’t take off the way social media did. In fact, interest in augmented reality is, according to Google Trends, slightly lower today compared to 2009.
Today, that ratio of 5:12 has become 3:95
When the concept of augmented reality hit the mainstream, it did so with a bang because it spoke to an innate desire we have as humans to augment the world around us with depth and meaning. The first time you saw augmented reality, I bet your imagination was racing. The first time I saw Magic Leap’s video with the whale jumping out of the gymnasium floor, I thought the world was going to change forever — but it didn’t. It hasn’t yet.
The term “augmented reality” appeared on the scene a little too soon, hyping us up only to be disappointed and unimpressed. But we still dream about what it could be, and today I want to talk to you about what I think AR needs to be before it takes off.
I hope by the end of this talk to have shown you why AR failed in the first place, what needs to be built for it to take off, and that it will unseat virtual reality as the king of the metaverse very quickly after it does. In fact, I hope to show you how the AR metaverse will be addressing a new half a trillion dollar market segment within 10 years.
Over the last 15 years or so I’ve been working as a professional memetic engineer. I use meme theory to understand and modify behavior, the idea that behaviors become prevalent through a kind of social contagion, and that the vectors of memetic contagion can be studied and understood.
And when you look at augmented reality as it is today through the lens of meme theory, a big problem reveals itself: Augmented reality is not social, so it will have a naturally and severely impaired memetic fitness. Simply put, the missing social aspect of AR prevents it from becoming a social contagion.
Now what do I mean by that, why isn’t AR social? Well, AR is not social because AR worlds are incredibly difficult to share. Most of the time, AR is something that is only happening on my little phone screen — but REALITY is something we inhabit together. We aren’t really augmenting REALITY if we can’t share the experience with someone else.
Now why is sharing AR so difficult? Simply put, it’s because your phone doesn’t know where it is in 3D space. GPS is nowhere near precise enough to serve as a canvas to hang AR experiences on, and at the moment there is nothing else — no 3D positioning system that the phone exists in.
There has only really been two ways of doing shared AR up until now. The first way is with physical markers that you have to bring with you, or that are placed in advance, that act as a shared point of reference, or 2) point cloud comparisons — either P2P, or increasingly P2E.
In the first method, if an object’s actual size and appearance is known in advance you can use it to gauge your position relative to that object. The benefit of this approach is that it is very accurate when done right, it’s pretty much perfect, but — it’s not very spontaneous, you have to bring the marker with you or have it set up in advance. This is not good memetics.
In the second method your AR device attempts to create a high fidelity depth map of the world in front of it, and compares that to another depth map. This is what Pokemon GO does when you try its shared AR.
If you haven’t tried it, shared AR in Pokemon GO works this way:
I scan a QR code on your screen, so that we signal our intent to create an AR world together. The app then instructs us to stand next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, then the app asks us both to point our cameras towards a large object in front of us, and then it tells us to slowly walk clockwise in a circle around that object while both our phones generate and compare depth maps to each other.
The benefit of this approach is that it doesn’t require you to bring a physical marker — but that doesn’t mean it’s very spontaneous or easy to share.
Doing point cloud comparisons is slow, typically taking 20–60 seconds and the peer to peer version is completely synchronous, meaning you can have no late joiners. If you go through this process, which takes 20–60 seconds, mind you, and then your friend wants to join in — then you have to start over.
And, the precision you get with this kind of comparison method is not that great. You typically get something on the order of several-to-tens of centimeters. This discrepant positioning harms the immersion, and the cumbersome and slow calibration is a giant memetic hurdle.
The lens of meme theory tells a damning story of why AR failed to pick up. “Social” took off as an industry because it was social, but augmented reality failed to actually augment reality because it didn’t foster any kind of behavior that would have any reason to spread. When AR is difficult to share, its exposure is limited, its use cases are limited and adoption is limited.
There are other things that impact immersion, like the embodiment problem. Your AR device has no idea of the physical properties of things around it, you can’t touch things with your hand or have a monkey climb a tree because your device doesn’t see those things very well yet.
Rendering, how the objects actually look, also harms immersion because it is very difficult to simulate and mimic the lighting conditions of the physical space that you’re trying to project a digital world onto.
Most of the work in AR now is improving on these two things, the physical awareness of the device and faithful rendering and reproduction of lighting. Niantic’s new Lightship project does an impressive amount of heavy lifting with embodiment and rendering, but sharing is still slow and cumbersome — and in Niantic’s case limited to 8 participants.
To summarize all of this, we could honestly say that AR is exhausting. It’s neither social nor interactive, it has poor positioning, poor shareability, poor embodiment.
For AR to really take off, to match our expectations, it has to be Social, Interactive, Precise… and Persistent.
So let’s talk a little bit about the future, not just of augmented reality — but in a sense, of reality itself.
So if this is our trajectory, this brings me to four predictions I want to make:
1) The death of the digital display.
When AR can be persistently placed in the world it will replace digital displays. Today, when I take the Hong Kong metro, I will pass dozens if not hundreds of digital displays and print billboards. These billboards show the same content to everyone, they require a setup cost and maintenance, they use up energy and natural resources — and all of this is highly inefficient.
The battery in your laptop and your smartphone is spending most of its energy fueling your digital display — and the digital display also takes up a lot of space and dictates the form factor of the device. Without the digital display you free up energy and space to go towards more meaningful uses — and there’s really no reason why you need the keyboard and trackpad either.
By the dawn of the integrated era the notion of a physical display will already be anachronistic and quaint. There will be no more laptops, or smartphones, they’ll both be replaced with a personal computing unit connected to the AR metaverse and no one will have bought a television for years. The first of these personal computing devices will be sold within the next few years.
2) Advertising reinvented
Advertising will be radically changed by a persistent AR metaverse, and that is also coming a lot sooner than you might think. We only need some mainstream adoption of AR wearables before advertisers will start rethinking their strategy.
If you could charge 4 times more for personalized ads in a physical space, then you only need a quarter of your foot traffic to be using wearables for it to be wiser for you to spend your ad money on AR rather than displays or print. Long before everyone is connected to the AR metaverse there will be a massive shift away from offline advertising in physical space to personalized online advertising in physical space — disrupting a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the US alone.
Advertisers will make this shift because it will be the first time that they can track every impression in the physical world. The AR metaverse is an advertiser’s wet dream, much more attractive than any VR metaverse because of the sheer amount of time that it can capture. The VR metaverse will be hyped up and all the rage until persistent AR hits the scene, and then we’ll see a tectonic shift.
3) Virtual Kingdoms
But the augmented reality metaverse needs to be regulated and monetized. My third prediction is that virtual real estate in AR, and the rendering rights for those spaces, will be bought and sold creating a market that will eventually eclipse that of physical real estate.
If you own a cafe by Dongzhimen station in Beijing, a subway stop that sees over a million people transiting every day, you might sell quite a few cups of coffee — but if you own the rendering rights for that virtual space you can make more money selling personalized ads and experiences to the tens of thousands of people that walk by.
In the future, I predict there will be housing subsidized by advertising. If you don’t own the rendering rights of your apartment, the landlord or property owner can supplement their income by showing ads inside your home — rather than on your TV or computer.
App store providers and governments are highly incentivized to adopt and enforce a protocol that makes this possible, because the same protocol would be what allows them to make sure their users aren’t exposed to inappropriate content or dangerous AR experiences.
Apple and Google want to make damn sure they’re not liable for your AR glasses running an AR app that removes traffic signs, or anything else like that, that could seriously harm you. AR is dangerous, so both governments and corporations will demand an AR metaverse protocol where rules can be enforced. This is why virtual real estate will become so precious.
4) Leaving flatland
These three predictions (the death of the digital display, the reimagining of advertising, and the market for virtual real estate) all hinge on the next one, a fourth prediction that suddenly unlocks the potential of the other three.
In the future, every cubic millimeter will have a unique address, and the protocol that enables that will be the kingmaker for a new market spanning trillions of dollars — a sizeable percentage of all human economic interactions.
As our cities grow bigger, they will reach up towards the heavens and deep underground. Two-dimensional maps and representations of the physical world will no longer make sense. Human settlements will be measured volumetrically rather than by area. Population density will be eventually measured across volumes rather than areas, and every cubic millimeter will have an address.
By this time, the GPS system will be relegated to an obscure backup protocol, inaccessible within the towering urban landscapes of future cities. Location needs to be expressed as a precise position in space. Every cubic millimeter will have an address.
Vast fleets of automated vehicles and delivery drones will navigate these complex and crowded three-dimensional environments at incredible speeds, until delivery drones can deliver a cup of coffee to you while you’re riding your bike. Human pilots will be the exception rather than the rule.
In the future, every cubic millimeter will have an address — there will be an internet of location, an AR metaverse, and the positioning and mapping protocol of the future will be peer-to-peer, collaborative, terrestrial and fast.
The emergence of a persistent AR layer, and our migration beyond our planet’s surface, necessitates a new standard for 3D positioning where every cubic millimeter has an address. This positioning system will underpin the AR metaverse, the true heir of the Web 3 era, and unlock trillions of dollars of market value. It may reach a trillion dollars within a decade.
When actual augmented reality hits the mainstream, it will do so with a bang.