Aurasma vs. Blippar

I’ve written about Augmented Reality extensively in the past, but since the days of immersing myself in the purely theoretical potential for the medium, a few key players have rooted themselves in a very commercial reality that is now powering the fledgling industry.

And while B2B-focused vendors such as ViewAR remain behind the scenes, the likes of Aurasma and Blippar have soared in notoriety thanks to some quite excellent packaging and an impressive sales proposition. They are the standard bearers, at least in the eyes of the public.

I like Aurasma. But I also like Blippar. So which is better? Well, let’s find out… Here are some provocations I’ve been toying around with. See if it helps you decide, and let me know which side you fall on in the comments.

[twocol_one][dropcap]A[/dropcap]urasma has more technological power behind it. They have (supposedly) incorporated academic research into their proprietary tech and have a heritage in pattern recognition systems – remember their core business though: integrating with business critical processes and then slowly ramping up prices. They do this across all other Autonomy products! Also consider they are an HP property, whose business is hardware, not software. I believe Aurasma are only using this period of their lifespan to learn what does and doesn’t work, get better at it, gain status, equip users to enjoy AR, and then develop a mobile chipset (literally, hardware optimised for AR) that can be embedded in mobile devices, making HP buckets of royalties. They are chasing install base, but not because they want advertising bucks: they want to whitelabel their tech (i.e. Tesco, Heat & GQ) and then disappear into the background.[/twocol_one]

[twocol_one_last][dropcap]B[/dropcap]lippar have a proprietary AR engine, but are listed as using Qualcomm’s Vuforia engine – which is free to use. They seem focused on innovations in the augmented layer. Reading their interviews, they speak of AR not as a tech, platform or medium, but as a kind of magic campaign juice: stuff that reveals they are extremely focused on delivering a good consumer experience paid for by advertisers, with them as connective tissue. To this end, they too are chasing install base, but ultimately they have a different goal in mind. Being Qualcomm-backed, their future is in flexing their creative muscles and helping make AR a mass market medium through normalising behaviour. Big rivals: Aurasma in the short term, but I imagine that one day, Aurasma will revert back to being a tech platform, and companies like Blippar will provide the surface experience: where good content, not tech, will be what sells.[/twocol_one_last]

So what do you reckon – A or B?

Summary So Far

In summary, Mobile AR has many paths leading to it. It is this convergence of various paths that makes a true historical appraisal of this technology difficult to achieve. However, I have highlighted facets of its contributing technologies that assist in the developing picture of the implications that Mobile AR has in store. A hybridisation of a number of different technologies, Mobile AR embodies the most gainful properties of its three core technologies: This analyst sees Mobile AR as a logical progression from VR, but recognises its ideological rather than technological founding. The hardware basis of Mobile AR stems from current mobile telephony trends that exploit the growing capabilities of Smartphone devices. The VR philosophy and the mobile technology are fused through the Internet, the means for enabling context-based, live-updating content, and housing databases of developer-built and user-generated digital objects and elements, whilst connecting users across the world.

I have shown that where the interest in VR technologies dwindled due to its limited real-world applicability, Mobile Internet also lacks in comparison to Mobile AR and its massive scope for intuitive, immersive and realistic interpretations of digital information. Wearable AR computing shares VR’s weaknesses, despite keeping the user firmly grounded in physical reality. Mobile AR offers a solution that places the power of these complex systems into a mobile telephone: the ubiquitous technology of our generation. This new platform solves several problems at once, most importantly for AR developers and interested Blue-chip parties, market readiness. Developing for Mobile AR is simply the commercially sensible thing to do, since the related industries are already making the changes required for its mass-distribution.

Like most nascent technologies, AR’s success depends on its commercial viability and financial investment, thus most sensible commercial developers of AR technologies are working on projects for the entertainment and advertising industries, where their efforts can be rewarded quickly. These small-scale projects are often simple in concept, easily grasped and thus not easily forgotten. I claim here that the first Mobile AR releases will generate early interest in the technology and entertainment markets, with the effect that press reportage and word-of-mouth behaviour assist Mobile AR’s uptake. I must be careful with my claims here however, since there is no empirical evidence to suggest that this will occur for Mobile AR. Looking at the emergence of previous technologies, however, the Internet and mobile telephony grew rapidly and to massive commercial success thanks to some strong business models and advancements in their own supporting technologies. It is strongly hoped by developers like Gameware and T-Immersion that Mobile AR can enjoy this same rapid lift-off. Both technologies gained prominence once visible in the markets thanks to a market segment called early adopters. This important group gathers their information from specialist magazine sources and word of mouth. Mobile AR developers would do well to recognise the power of this group, perhaps by offering shareware versions of their AR software that encourage a form of viral transmission that exploit text messaging.

Gameware have an interesting technique for the dissemination of their HARVEE software. They share a business interest with a Bluetooth technology firm, which has donated a prototype product the Bluetooth Push Box, which scans for local mobile devices and automatically sends files to users in acceptance. Gameware’s Push Box sends their latest demo to all visitors to their Cambridge office. This same technology could be placed in public places or commercial spaces to offer localised AR advertising, interactive tourist information, or 3D restaurant menus, perhaps.

Gameware, through its Nokia projects and HARVEE development program is well placed to gain exposure on the back of a market which is set to explode as mobile offerings become commercially viable, ‘social’, powerful, multipurpose and newsworthy. Projects like HARVEE are especially interesting in terms of their wide applicability and mass-market appeal. It is its potential as a revolutionary new medium that inspires this very series.

Virtual Reality

AR is considered by some to be a logical progression of VR technologies (Liarokapis, 2006; Botella, 2005; Reitmayr & Schmalstieg, 2001), a more appropriate way to interact with information in real-time that has been granted only by recent innovations. Thus, one could consider that a full historical appraisal would pertain to VR’s own history, plus the last few years of AR developments. Though this method would certainly work for much of Wearable AR- which uses a similar device array- the same could not be said for Mobile AR, since by its nature it offers a set of properties from a wholly different paradigm: portability, connectivity and many years of mobile development exclusive of AR research come together in enhancing Mobile AR’s formal capabilities. Despite the obvious mass-market potential of this technology, most AR research continues to explore the Wearable AR paradigm. Where Mobile AR is cousin to VR, Wearable AR is sister. Most published works favour the Wearable AR approach, so if my assessment of Mobile AR is to be fair I cannot ignore its grounding in VR research.

As aforementioned, VR is the realm at the far right of my Mixed Reality Scale. To explore a Virtual Reality, users must wear a screen array on their heads that cloak the user’s vision with a wholly virtual world. These head-mounted-displays (HMD’s) serve to transpose the user into this virtual space whilst cutting them off from their physical environment:

A Virtual Reality HMD, two LCD screens occupy the wearer's field of vision
A Virtual Reality HMD, two LCD screens occupy the wearer's field of vision

The HMD’s must be connected to a wearable computer, a Ghostbusters-style device attached to the wearer’s back or waist that holds a CPU and graphics renderer. To interact with virtual objects, users must hold a joypad. Aside from being a lot to carry, this equipment is restrictive on the senses and is often expensive:

A Wearable Computer array, this particular array uses a CPU, GPS, HMD, graphics renderer, and human-interface-device
A Wearable Computer array, this particular array uses a CPU, GPS, HMD, graphics renderer, and human-interface-device

It is useful at this point to reference some thinkers in VR research, with the view to better understanding The Virtual realm and its implications for Mobile AR’s Mixed Reality approach. Writing on the different selves offered by various media, Lonsway (2002) states that:

“With the special case of the immersive VR experience, the user is (in actual fact) located in physical space within the apparatus of the technology. The computer-mediated environment suggests (in effect) a trans-location outside of this domain, but only through the construction of a subject centred on the self (I), controlling an abstract position in a graphic database of spatial coordinates. The individual, of which this newly positioned subject is but one component, is participant in a virtuality: a spatio-temporal moment of immersion, virtualised travel, physical fixity, and perhaps, depending on the technologies employed, electro-magnetic frequency exposure, lag-induced nausea, etc.”

Lonsway (2002: 65)

Despite its flaws, media representations of VR technologies throughout the eighties and early nineties such as Tron (Lisberger, 1982), Lawnmower Man (Leonard, 1992) and Johnny Mnemonic (Longo, 1995) generated plenty of audience interest and consequent industrial investment. VR hardware was produced in bulk for much of the early nineties, but it failed to become a mainstream technology largely due to a lack of capital investment in VR content, a function of the stagnant demand for expensive VR hardware (Mike Dicks of Bomb Productions: personal communication). The market for VR content collapsed, but the field remains an active contributor in certain key areas, with notable success as a commonplace training aid for military pilots (Baumann, date unknown) and as an academic tool for the study of player immersion and virtual identity (Lonsway, 2002).

Most AR development uses VR’s same array of devices: a wearable computer, input device and an HMD. The HMD is slightly different in these cases; it is transparent and contains an internal half-silvered mirror, which combines images from an LCD display with the user’s vision of the world:

An AR HMD, this model has a half-mirrored screen at 45 degrees. Above are two LCDs that reflect into the wearer's eyes whilst they can see what lies in front of them
An AR HMD, this model has a half-mirrored screen at 45 degrees. Above are two LCDs that reflect into the wearer's eyes whilst they can see what lies in front of them

 

What Wearable AR looks like, notice the very bright figure ahead. If he was darker he would not be visible
What Wearable AR looks like, notice the very bright figure ahead. If he was darker he would not be visible

There are still many limitations placed on the experience, however: first, the digital graphics must be very bright in order to stand out against natural light; second, they require the use of a cumbersome wearable computer array; third, this array is at a price-point too high for it to reach mainstream use. Much of the hardware used in Wearable AR research is bought wholesale from liquidized VR companies (Dave Mee of Gameware: personal communication), a fact representative of the backward thinking of much AR research.

In their work New Media and the Permanent Crisis of Aura Bolter et al. (2006) apply Benjamin’s work on the Aura to Mixed Reality technologies, and attempt to forge a link between VR and the Internet. This passage offers a perspective on the virtuality of the desktop computer and the World Wide Web:

“What we might call the paradigm of mixed reality is now competing successfully with what we might call ‘pure virtuality’ – the earlier paradigm that dominated interface design for decades.
In purely virtual applications, the computer defines the entire informational or perceptual environment for the user … The goal of VR is to immerse the user in a world of computer generated images and (often) computer-controlled sound. Although practical applications for VR are relatively limited, this technology still represents the next (and final?) logical step in the quest for pure virtuality. If VR were perfected and could replace the desktop GUI as the interface to an expanded World Wide Web, the result would be cyberspace.”

Bolter et al. (2006: 22)

This account offers a new platform for discussion useful for the analysis of the Internet as a component in Mobile AR: the idea that the Internet could exploit the spatial capabilities of a Virtual Reality to enhance its message. Bolter posits that this could be the logical end of a supposed “quest for pure virtuality”. I would argue that the reason VR did not succeed is the same reason that there is no “quest” to join: VR technologies lack the real-world applicability that we can easily find in reality-grounded media such as the Internet or mobile telephone.

Gameware: A Case-Study in AR Development

I have been aided in this series by a connection with Gameware Development Limited, a Cambridge-based commercial enterprise working in the entertainment industry. Gameware was formed in May 2003 from Creature Labs Ltd, developing for the PC games market which produced the market leading game in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Creatures. When Gameware was formed, a strategic decision was made to move away from retail products and into the provision of technical services. They now work within the Broadcasting and Mobile Telephony space in addition to the traditional PC market. I use this business as a platform to launch into a discussion of the developments current and past that could see AR become a part of contemporary life, and just why AR is such a promising technology.

Gameware’s first explorations into AR came when they were commissioned by the BBC to develop an AR engine and software toolkit for a television show to be aired on the CBBC channel. The toolkit lets children build virtual creatures or zooks at home on their PCs which are uploaded back to the BBC and assessed:

 

A typical Zook, screenshot taken from Gameware's Zook Kit which lets children build virtual creatures
A typical Zook, screenshot taken from Gameware's Zook Kit which lets children build virtual creatures

 

The children with the best designs are then invited to the BAMZOOKi studio to have their virtual creatures compete against each other in a purpose-built arena comprised of real and digital elements. The zooks themselves are not real, of course, but the children can see silhouettes of digital action projected onto the arena in front of them. Each camera has an auxiliary camera pointed at AR markers on the studio ceiling, meaning each camera’s exact location in relation to the simulated events can be processed in real time. The digital creatures are stitched into the footage, and are then navigable and zoomable as if they were real studio elements. No post-production is necessary. BAMZOOKi is currently in its fourth series, with repeats aired daily:

 

BAMZOOKi, BBC's AR game show where children’s zooks compete in a studio environment
BAMZOOKi, BBC's AR game show where children’s zooks compete in a studio environment

 

BAMZOOKi has earned Childrens BBC some of its highest viewing figures (up to 1.2 million for the Monday shows on BBC1 and around 100,000 for each of the 20 episodes shown on digital Children’s BBC), which represents a massive milestone for AR and its emergence as a mainstream media technology. The evidence shows that there is a willing audience already receptive to contemporary AR applications. Further to the viewing figures the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, is in talks to distribute the BAMZOOKi format across the world, with its AR engine as its biggest USP. Gameware hold the rights required to further develop their BAMZOOKi intellectual property (IP), and are currently working on a stripped down version of their complex AR engine for the mobile telephony market.

I argue, however, that Broadcast AR is not the central application of AR technologies, merely an enabler for its wider applicability in other, more potent forms of media. Mobile AR offers a new channel of distribution for a variety of media forms, and it is its flexibility as a platform that could see it become a mainstream medium. Its successful deployment and reception is reliant on a number of cooperating factors; the innovation of its developers and the quality of the actual product being just part of the overall success the imminent release.

As well as their AR research, Gameware creates innovative digital games based on their Creatures AI engine. They recently produced Creebies; a digital game for Nokia Corp. Creebies is one of the first 3D games which incorporates AI for mobile phones. Gameware’s relationship with Nokia was strengthened when Nokia named them Pro-Developers. This is a title that grants Gameware a certain advantage: access to prototype mobile devices, hardware specifications, programming tools and their own Symbian operating system (Symbian OS) for mobile platforms. It was this development in combination with their experiences with BAMZOOKi and a long-standing collaboration with Cambridge University which has led to the idea for their HARVEE project. HARVEE stands for Handheld Augmented Reality Virtual Entertainment Engine.

Their product allows full 3D virtual objects to co-exist with real objects in physical space, viewed through the AR Device, which are animated, interactive and navigable, meaning the software can make changes to the objects as required, providing much space for interesting digital content. The applications of such a tool range from simple toy products; advertising outlets; tourist information or multiplayer game applications; to complex visualisations of weather movements; collaborating on engineering or architectural problems; or even implementing massive city-wide databases of knowledge where users might ‘tag’ buildings with their own graphical labels that might be useful to other AR users. There is rich potential here.

In HARVEE, Gameware attempt to surmount the limitations of current AR hardware in order to deliver the latest in interactive reality imaging to a new and potentially huge user base. Indeed, Nokia’s own market research suggests that AR-capable Smartphones will be owned by 25% of all consumers by 2009 (Nokia Research Centre Cambridge, non-public document). Mobile AR of the type HARVEE hopes to achieve represents not only a significant technical challenge, but also a potentially revolutionary step in mobile telephony technologies and the entertainment industry.

Gameware’s HARVEE project is essentially the creation of an SDK (Software Development Kit) which will allow developers to create content deliverable via their own Mobile AR applications. The SDK is written with the developer in mind, and does the difficult work of augmenting images and information related to the content. This simple yet flexible approach opens up a space for various types of AR content created at low cost for developers and end-users. I see Mobile AR’s visibility on the open market the only impediment to its success, and I believe that its simplicity of concept could see it become a participatory mass-medium of user-generated and mainstream commercial content.

Microsoft’s Vision for the Future

Microsoft have released a new video suggesting they seek to reposition themselves over the next decade. I think they are on to something:

Their vision for the future is evidently very ambitious, but I believe that if anyone can pull this off, it’s them.

Microsoft’s approach has always been to create user experiences that are improved through exclusive use of Microsoft products. Sure, it’s got them in a  lot of trouble in the past, but it’s their corporate power and knowledge of how technologies (especially theirs) can work together that will best service the user through Ubiquitous Computing and Augmented Reality.

What’s especially interesting to me is that they really seem to have thought past their next release, Surface. It’s great to see something of their overall strategy. Something Apple, Google & Yahoo! are far less forthcoming with.

We are soon to have a Surface installed in the lobby at work. Really looking forward to it, but I’m concerned it’ll be too prescriptive in what it can be  used for. If Surface and any of the featured technologies in the above video suffer the marketing / usability failures of Vista it’ll be years more until these tools become a reality, at the hands of their competitors.

Will feedback on Surface once I’ve had a hands-on.

Introducing… The Pico-Projector

mobileinnovation1Problem:
Mobile multimedia capabilities are increasing in uptake and potential, but the small form-factor we so desire in our handsets are beginning to inhibit a rich user experience.
The typical mobile screen size is 320×240.

Solution:
If your mobile has a pico-projector, it will be able to emit high-res imagery onto any suitable surface, up to 50″ in width.
This unlocks the full immersive power of your mobile web browser, 3D games engine, DivX movie player or video conferencing.

Market Readiness:
Pico-projectors are already on sale as stand-alone units, though are yet to be implemented in mobiles, PMPs or laptops.
The first of these hardware mashups will be on sale in the East by the end of this year, but it’ll likely be another 18 months before they reach Western shores.

Potential:
Aside from the new opportunities for deeper engagement with content and software on the mobile platform, the largest socio-cultural change will occur once people begin to share their mobile experience.
Picture regular consumers using the real world as a medium for virtual interaction.
Location-aware video advertising anyone?