When the Levee Breaks: Our AWEsome, Augmented Future

Any quick glance at hourly "Breaking News" overlays on TV news, the rampant invective on social media, wild-eyed passengers having nervous breakdowns on airplanes, or even octogenarians hurling political f-bombs at each other in the rec room your grandma's convalescent hospital, it's pretty apparent that, in the words of Aerosmith, "There's something wrong in the world today, I don't know what it is...".

Some days, you want to either pull a blanket over your head, crawl under a rock, or -- for the Dungeons & Dragons lovers out there -- deploy your extra-dimensional portable hole and jump into it as fast as you can.

But until then, our prime directive has been to "Keep Calm, and Carry On". And for many a techie out there, that means they'll keep building the coming, immersive world of augmented reality as an adjunct, alternative -- and yes, augmentation -- to the real-reality, and make it better. Or escape from it.

It's also worth noting, coincidentally, that this is the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. In the excellent new Amazon Studios documentary, "Long Strange Trip", there's a great quote from Jerry Garcia, talking about the inflection point, the moment the 1950s Eisenhower Age of Bobbysoxers and Beatniks gave way to the Peace, Love and Rock-n-Roll of the "Real Sixties":

It was about possibilities; they were in just in
the air. And everybody was also waiting with
this sense that "something is about to happen".
It was just like everybody knew it, everybody
was waiting for this "thing" to happen. And
everybody did what they could to make "it"
happen... People were losing faith in this
reality, thinking: "This can’t be all there is
... there's just not enough to it ... it's not that
interesting... it doesn’t require enough of me, it
isn't a challenge, and it isn’t enough FUN."

With yesterday and today as a backdrop, two weeks ago, I attended my first Augmented World Expo at the Santa Clara Convention Center. It’s a “gathering of the tribes” of sorts, a veritable Candyland for fan boys and fan girls everywhere about augmented reality technologies.

How to describe AWE 2017? Big, brawling, sprawling... You knew it would be big, just by the line for check in, something akin to the opening day of Star Wars in 1977. And 100,000 sq feet(!) of "play space" in the belly of Silicon Valley's beast, at the shopworn Santa Clara Convention Center, with hopeful young people from the world over flying in (in many cases their first trip to California) for a crack at the next Gold Rush. This is AWE in a nutshell.

Me? I’m local, but a newbie to all things Augmented Reality and immersion. I’ve spent most of my tech career as an analyst looking at business processes and how to make them better through the application technology services -- most recently robots, algorithms and AI. Now I'm jumping into the deep end of the pool of the immersive technologies of AR/VR/MR/XR to see how they'll become a cornerstone for the Future of Work. And with AR especially, it’s abundantly clear that something BIG is afoot.

And there's a lot of "immerscenti" who are smart, turned-on people, and who, like the denizens of Haight-Ashbury fifty years ago, have gathered here, in this spot in the world, right now, and are trying to make "it" happen.

Here's some fun anecdotes from the show:

  • "A day full of dopamine": VR is starting to make its way into seniors centers and nursing homes. A great panel that included Linda Jacobson asking pre-dementia seniors "what was the address of the house where you raised your children", bringing it to life for them in VR with a simple Google Street View, and literally watching the dopamine flood the synapses (and smiles spread from ear-to-ear).
  • The Meaning of Sgt. Pepper: Bring back the allure of album art! With AR/VR we'll soon be able to go deep into the artist’s “world” with help from companies like Sceneplay. Lovers of Roger Dean covers, Radiohead, the Beatles and Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic” rejoice!
  • Magic bubble: Forget the "boil, boil, toil and trouble" magic orb that Donald Trump and the Saudis recently rallied around. This 360 video ball from Global Imagination makes the obverse of immersive ("disinterred"?) VR accessible in the "real world" (or, maybe, "reality Base-0"?)
  • The Time Machine: If you’re travelling, you'll soon be interacting with characters from the past that can act out little scenarios from history. It’s already happening in profound museum experiences, and even on your exercycle.
  • Awaiting the Holodeck: The idea of the Holodeck debuted on Star Trek decades ago. Ten years later, the Indiana Jones character in an Atari 2600 game was a blob. Now with teraflops of computing, powered by the likes of Nvidia, Mary Meeker's idea of finding "beauty" plus emotional connection and empathy needs to be a lodestar for immersive technologies.
  • From SMAC-talk to chalk-talk: The AR revolution will continue play out on smartphone screens for awhile (yes, more goofy lolling tongue, dog-face overlays), but it's probable that immersive technologies will "melt" the SMAC stack entirely in the 2020s. Already, Vuforia's Project Chalk enables people that are far apart help each other.
  • The new "AIR": It’s pretty apparent that the fuel in the AR tank will be AI. Does AI + AR = the new “AIR” we all breathe in our daily movements, experiences and work? If AR companies like Resonai met with AI companies like Clarifai, that'd happen...
  • Destruction of construction instructions: Forget the “insert Tab A into Slot B” paper schematics when you want to assemble IKEA flatpack furniture in the future. Your AR glasses (and, eventually, 4D printing) will do it for you.
  • Pedagogues agog for AR: Teachers everywhere can jump start their pupils -- now! -- into the world of AR by crafting Aurasma "aura" vignettes in 30 minutes
  • Pressure test the (cinematic) message: A/B testing has been with us for a while. What if affinity groups on Facebook, Linked-In, Rotten Tomatoes could test out cinematic experiences from studios and A/B test them on the fly?
  • Entertainment, "real business" or something more?: While entertainment and education will be of huge benefit (especially for VR), the aperture of AR is also opening to enterprise business processes everywhere. Hint: if you have already have field service or logistics processes, get thee to augmented reality, ASAP! (and check out this supremely compelling demo from Upskill).

AWE excited me most because it's clear that some of my initial "thought experiments" about Augmented Experience were playing out in parallel with others. Build-out is now actually being done by real-life computer scientists, designers, and garagistes all over Silicon Valley and further afield. To see IRL the real-live startups now burgeoning in augmented reality petri dishes of hackathons, game jams, perfecting skins & surfaces & planes (oh my!), "escape rooms", SDKs, SLAMs and HMDs (and, this being Silicon Valley – intrigued-but-cautious, and likely soon-to-be-copious venture backing) all soon to be bringing the Future to life.

And yet, for now – here’s the rub – there’s an element of “Waiting for Guffman” about all this. To paraphrase Jerry G. again, everybody knows that "something is about to happen". But four key players were not EXPLICITLY in the house. For as much as hundreds of really smart people are starting to fit the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, the conspicuous absence of the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and that AR dark horse of dark horses – Magic Leap – was palpable.

It's sort of like if you were craving rock-and-roll in the Sixties, and The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, and The Dead haven't shown up on the scene yet. But maybe Elvis (Apple with the iPhone), Chuck Berry (Instagram, or Facebook Space), and Buddy Holly (Google Glass 2.0) have at least entered the building are rocking out at the chord structures they hear.

Perhaps this is by design? Maybe. Or else it's possible the alchemists from these big -- like Arya Stark -- walked amongst us all at AWE in Santa Clara in disguise, picking up some of the riffs. And you have to hand it to those wearables players that WERE present front-and-center, like Microsoft, Meta, Daqri and Osterhout Design Group... all armed with fine examples of wearable augmented hardware for sure, with some no-doubt amazing technologies under the hood (under the glass?) that will make the whole thing groove.

But still – for all the "brute forcing" of innovation happening - this industry is waiting for Mssrs. Zuckerberg or Cook to grace humanity with the AR equivalent of an “iPhone” moment: the ubiquitous, beautiful, light, and high-performance wearable that everyone must have, consumer and business alike. At that moment, cue the last song on “Led Zeppelin IV”, because when the veritable levee breaks, it will catalyze and cohere entire ecosystems of folks looking at creating, narrating, instrumenting, guiding, and painting our augmented and virtual worlds to come.

Meantime – while we’re waiting for the Guffman of immersion -- our augmented world is going to play out on overlays on top of tablets and smartphones everywhere. But there *will* come a day the Warby Parker store will offer you your stylish AR lenses, perhaps owned as the latest bauble in an Apple/Google/Facebook string-of-pearls acquisition. (Hey, if anyone told you Amazon would buy Whole Foods and you laughed incredulously, there’s $13.7 billion of M&A dollars laughing right back at you...)

That’s why looking at augmented reality from a Future of Work perspective is so instructive, because in 10 years or sooner, augmented reality *will* be the future of work, and help us in many/most/every(?) job, journey, and gesture we make. And when it does, the world will rock to an augmented beat, a mood, and a spirit it hasn't felt in a very long time (maybe, like the the Eagles sung about in "Hotel California", since 1969).