AWE 2019: Go XR, Be Awesome
Due to the increased interest in augmented (AR), mixed (MR), virtual (VR), and extended virtual reality (many just call it all XR to make it simple), I decided to again attend and cover the recent 2019 Augmented World Expo (AWE) and conference in Santa Clara, California. My goals were to:
- Provide some interesting highlights from the talks we attended as well as interviews with suppliers and others
- Describe some of the best of what I saw at the show, focusing on new and updated hardware
- Report on new and advanced uses for XR
This year's event theme, “Go XR, Be Awesome,” says it all. “Awesome” is a great description of what is being done with and planned for XR in the medium and even the short term.
This year was the 10th anniversary of AWE, and there were almost 10,000 attendees, which was almost 3,000 more than had been anticipated, and 100,000 square feet of exhibit space. I realize that this is tiny when compared to CES, but this show has grown in the last few years. Some call AWE the "CES of the Near Future," but while a great deal of CES focuses on XR, AWE is solely focused on XR. AWE focuses on what is coming, while CES shows more of what is available now. To watch a short, interesting video introduction to AWE USA 2019, click here.
Top 10 Areas of Discussion
As stated by Ori Inbar, AWE co-founder, at his opening address:
“For 50 years, computing has been a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world. Now, tech giants and thousands of startups who are seeking growth opportunities beyond mobile have set spatial computing on a trajectory for exponential growth [more on this later]. Most large corporations are adopting spatial computing to improve their businesses driven by strong evidence it delivers measurable ROI, and consumers begin to appreciate the radical benefits of this technology, which could signal the next dimension of humanity. In 2019, everyone must enter the next dimension to understand the impact it’s bound to have on their lives and businesses.”
Ori indicated that the top 10 areas of discussion at present are:
1. Enabling AR/VR
Thanks to advancements in enabling areas of tech like computer vision, spatial audio gesture recognition, and eye tracking, AR/VR experiences are becoming more natural and immersive.
2. 2019: The Year of the Creator
Several authoring tools aimed at equipping the next generation of creators with fast and easy tools for building AR/VR experiences without code are setting the stage for 2019 to be the “year of the creator.”
3. Advertising and Marketing
AR proved itself last year by increasing sales for early adopters like Houzz, and 2019 is shaping up to be another good year for mobile AR ads as well as VR marketing and consumer research campaigns.
4. Gaming, eSports, and Location-based Entertainment
You need to experience a new reality to believe it, which is why immersive gaming, eSports, and LBE signal the best way forward for AR/VR.
5. Humanities, Privacy, and Ethics
AR/VR are raising critical issues around access, privacy, consent, and harassment. At the same time, we can make a conscious effort to include people of all gender identities, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds in the future of computing.
AR/VR are now well-established tools providing ROI at several Fortune 500 companies with larger and even full-production rollouts of AR/VR solutions expected to ramp up in the next few years.
7. Future of Mobility
AR/VR are helping to design, assemble, service, and shop for the cars of tomorrow, and may very well serve as the primary form of in-vehicle entertainment when we no longer need to pay attention to the road.
8. AR Cloud
The race to build an index of the real world is on with companies working to align digital content with the physical environment on a global scale to enable next-level AR.
Web-based AR/VR content will impact immersive tech adoption and overall use by exposing the masses to AR and VR without requiring an app download.
The next generation of AR/VR applications to be successful are going to require greater bandwidth and lower latency than 4G can deliver; therefore, the future of immersive tech depends greatly on the rollout of 5G.
So, what exactly is spatial computing? The best definition I have seen is “a set of ideas and technologies that will transform our lives by understanding the physical world, knowing and communicating our relation to places in that world, and navigating through those places.” Basically, spatial computing is human interaction with a machine in which the machine retains and manipulates referents to real objects and spaces. Ideally, these real objects and spaces have prior significance to the user. For instance, a system that allows users to create virtual forms and install them into the actual space surrounding them.
One of the interesting talks was given by Verizon 5G labs. When most people think about 5G or Verizon, they think about cellphones, but 5G is going to enable so much more than getting a file downloaded faster or being able to view a video stutter free on a smartphone. The focus of this presentation was regarding the future of sports media using 5G. Right now, when we watch sports—even when using a portable device while at the event itself—we see a standard TV-like 2D presentation. We see the sports event as the TV camera sees it and as the transmitting network thinks we want to see it.
Imagine being able to watch the event as if from the stands as usual but being able to change your viewpoint from the stands to the players on the field or near the goal and being able to view it in 3D. You will have the opportunity to see a life-like experience from multiple viewpoints. As stated in an article published by Verizon, “Imagine watching the entire game displayed as a live hologram on your coffee table. These are the types of things 5G will eventually enable.” If you are interested in learning more about this topic, take a look at Verizon’s write-up . This vision of future ways to view sports supported by XR and 5G was fully supported by Intel.
Another talk I found interesting covered new VR glasses by nreal. This new device was part of a trend that I observed at the show. In past articles regarding VR/AR, when I had a chance to get a demo and try VR/AR headsets at this year’s and last year’s show, you had to use a VR headset that was somewhat large, uncomfortable, and required significant power to run. Thus, there were lots of new headsets, some soon to be available or being shown as prototypes.
Even with the impressive advances being shown, headsets still have a limited field of view, and AR/VR headsets still require compromises between going wireless and quality of the experience. Still, the new wired headsets are much more comfortable and can use a wire to connect to a portable device. Also, there isn’t a unified app ecosystem yet. Picking a headset limits you to the content available for it. Those leading the pack seem to be Microsoft, Android, and Qualcomm.
One promising development is the constantly improving approach to MR. Much more capable cameras are now being included in the new lightweight, comfortable headsets being shown at this year’s show. Eye tracking is also becoming more common and far more accurate with greatly improved capability. This will greatly improve the experience and allow the user to access menus without having to use a hand controller. Also, many include a microphone in a slightly heavier than normal pair of “sunglasses.” Industrial AR/VR Viewpointsystems demoed a slim, 5 oz. MR headset with integrated eye tracking at the show. But at $4,600, in the near term, it will probably only be used for high-ROI industrial applications.
The point, however, is that the hardware has improved significantly in capability, ease, and comfort of use. And when considering all of the additional capabilities, the value vs. cost ratio has improved. In addition, the rate of improvement has also increased. As I write this, I am thinking that it is only about six months to CES 2020.
Now, let’s talk about a few specific headsets being shown, some of which were announced at CES and shown and demonstrated at AWE. Other lightweight, highly capable devices were shown, and a few that I found impressive had similar VR/AR capabilities, including normal glasses with comfort, sound, and portable or wearable device compatibility.
The new glasses from nreal, as well as many others at the show, are a whole new generation. They look almost like normal sunglasses. They fit over your regular glasses if you wear them, and they are light, comfortable, and something you would have no problem wearing for hours on end or folding them and putting them in your pocket. This new generation is powered by your portable device (phone, tablet, computer, etc.) as long as it includes USB-C—basically any Android or Windows device. It also includes 3D vision at a good resolution of up to 1080p and either a full virtual or an augmented image (putting a virtual image over the real world) and a 52-degree field of view.
Further, the headset includes spatial sound and seems to do a great job of letting you watch movies, play games, and do nearly all present and predicted upcoming AR/VR activities. They are powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, and it was announced that they will be able to work with any similarly powered device. They can connect by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and transmit haptic touch feelings to a small separate controller, which is also touch sensitive. They also incorporate their own front-facing camera. This next-generation device will sell for under $500 and will be available this year.
Another next-gen, lightweight XR headset I found impressive, incorporating all of the latest updates, was from Third Eye who is clearly focused on industrial and medical uses of XR. In addition, they announced that developers working with their new X2 MR smart glasses now have the ability to communicate with the ThirdEye development team via Skype (kind of like an open-source roundtable), which is definitely accelerating the overall progress.
This headset weighs only 6 oz. and will be available soon. It’s not cheap, but it’s not aimed at the home entertainment market. It has a truly amazing and fully capable design. I am considering getting one of the next-gen headsets to get more personal knowledge and experience for future coverage, and this one is now high on my list.
Another example of impressive progress was new lenses from LetinAR who announced a new optical solution for XR glasses. LetinAR is a startup that develops optical solutions for AR Glasses called the PinMR™ lens. They have applied the so-called “pinhole effect” to tiny mirrors and embedded them with eyeglasses lenses. Respective PinMR™ reflects the light from a microdisplay and guides the light into human pupils. Users may view the virtual image from the microdisplay as well as the image from the real world at ease. Human eyes cannot detect the mirrors, which are smaller than pupils. Only the virtual image formed by the light reflected by those mirrors is visible. This allows manufacturers to build smartglasses that resemble conventional glasses.
One company that I feel may be on the verge of a major leap forward in the XR universe is Lenovo. They have announced their ThinkReality system. Lenovo does a great job of design and development of a complete system and should not be taken lightly. While I did not have enough time to try the new Lenovo offerings, I will quote endgadget:
“There are two parts to the new ThinkReality system—the AR headset and a software platform. The ThinkReality A6 is a comfortable, 380-gram headset with two fisheye cameras on the front as well as depth sensors and a 13-megapixel RGB sensor. There are also microphones onboard for voice control, and the headset can also detect where you're gazing to optimize resolution or navigation. You'll also be able to interact with your virtual environments using an included 3DoF controller. Untethered, the A6 can last up to four hours with its 6,800-mAh battery, and you can still use the device while it's plugged in and charging.”
Other advanced headsets—both the new portable as well as the larger headset design—were shown at AWE. Some that I feel are leading the pack include the Magic Leap 1, and of course, the latest Microsoft HoloLens as well as others.
An additional capability I expect to see included in headsets soon is ray tracing, real-time ray tracing, easy-to-use engineering simulation, and VR- and AI-enabled applications powered by NVIDIA RTX™ technology. It is not foreseeable, however, that this will be soon available in the portable devices as ray tracing requires a relatively powerful computer and GPU, but we will see. The uses for XR—specifically the MR segment for industrial and commercial usage—is expanding dramatically.
As mentioned previously, there were some concept videos using prototype hardware and a lot more discussion about real use in some industries. Ubimax states they have over 250 customers for its manual-workflow XR solutions. At AWE, they announced adding support for XR using the HoloLens 2 so that workers can read needed documentation (typically PDFs) while they also get the benefits of XR while doing other tasks. I expect that just as the use of videos (yes, videos are an old form of XR) to provide instructions and assistance changed the way we learn how to do things, XR will do the same thing.
There’s so much more to discuss when covering AWE. For a small but growing event, there is a lot to see and hear. For example, there was a room dedicated to being an XR playground. When you entered, you saw people walking around as if they were in a different world, and they virtually were. They were looking at and manipulating things that the rest of us could not see. When I suited up and entered the virtual world instead of an exhibit room, I found myself in a dungeon with a mission in a totally different world. Not only could I see and hear, but I could also feel the virtual world I had entered.
At the show, I also had a chance to speak with Dr. Thomas Coughlin, IEEE USA president, Kathy Grise, IEEE Future Directions senior program director, and Minu Seshasayee, senior program director for Interprose for IEEE. IEEE has been expanding its efforts significantly for the last few years. The conversation was quite interesting and will be published in detail in a separate article.
In the last three years since I became interested in XR and started experimenting with it and writing about it, the uses and reality of XR have expanded and improved significantly. Add 5G to the mix, and within a few years, we will be able to enter a global AR/MR/XR world. XR is now so much more than 3D sight and surround sound; add improved touch and then smell and taste, and you can only imagine the uses. It is happening, and it is happening fast. Stay tuned! CES 2020 is only a half year away.
- Fay, K. “5G: Changing the Future of Sports,” January 29, 2019.