With COVID-19 driving more shoppers to ecommerce, is Augmented Reality (AR) going to see a boost in 2020? Possibly, although 2021 is more likely, especially if the Apple leaks of AR glasses and 5G support coming soon are true.
5G AR headsets in 2020?
Here is some background reading if you are not up with the news, but it changes rapidly. (Note: this is all public information you can find on the web. I exclude any Google related news below since I work at Google.)
- Phone-connected 5G VR/AR headsets are still on track for 2020, says Qualcomm.
- Apple Glass: Major leak may spill details on long-rumored AR glasses (suggests 2021 more likely for Apple due to COVID-19 delays)
- Apple Glasses: Release date, price, features and leaks (suggests 2022!)
- This Facebook smart glasses patent shows a future potential Apple Glass rival – unsurprisingly, Facebook might be doing something too. (They have Oculus VR headsets, so this is not surprising.)
- Microsoft has the Hololens for business applications, so you can imagine them getting more involved in the consumer end of the market in the future as well.
Why does 5G matter?
AR is based on imagery and 3D models. That is, an AR model of a product will be larger than just a photo, especially if you want to be able to zoom in on the model. So to get good responsiveness, 5G is very useful.
In a nutshell, a typical 3D model is a mesh of triangles with images superimposed on each triangle. Rotating the object in 3D space transforms the individual triangles, so lots of computations are required (GPUs are useful here!). So instead of just having a simple image, you have all the same need for imagery (the “skin” or “material”), plus the 3D model of triangles to wrap the image around. And if you want to zoom in on the model, you will need high resolution images for that as well.
VR has been around for a while, why will AR do better?
There are numerous VR headsets available, but they have not really gone mainstream. Why will AR be any different? I think there are several benefits that AR has over VR.
- With AR you consciously stay in the real world. VR you enter a virtual world, cut off from the real world.
- This makes AR more social. VR you are isolated, AR you can still see and interact with those around you. Putting on a VR headset is more like telling those around you to go away.
- AR is more general purpose. I can view content at home. I can go to a store and get guidance around the store to find products, while showing a shopping list in the corner of my display. I can get directions when walking around a city, with landmarks being pointed out.
- AR has interesting applications like tutorials for that new coffee maker you just purchased. You can see the tutorial alongside the real product (or possibly superimposed over the top).
I personally think AR glasses have great potential. And comments so far on the Apple glasses is they look attractive (and can have prescription lenses).
AR and commerce
AR is already being used by a number of commerce players so you can do things like explore furniture in your room before purchasing it. (Wayfair, Amazon, Ikea, …) eBay was using it in another way a few years ago, showing the size of the box you need for packing items. But you can imagine more.
This is important as it means more and more suppliers are thinking about making 3D models available for their products. High quality photography is expensive enough, high quality 3D models even more so. So the more the costs can be reduced by having the supplier create the models, the more scalable 3D models needed by AR become.
What about other experiences? Why not have a real or virtual shopping assistant also appear in AR. They can bring suggested products to you for you to browse. You can then manipulate and view them. A real shopping assistant could be on a video screen panel hanging in AR space, or a virtual assistant could be a 3D avatar with speech synthesis. (Want to renew your Geico insurance from the Gecko himself?)
Of course AR can be shared between viewers. Get a pair of glasses each, and look and interact with products together. (Network latency becomes even more important.) This does require a more sophisticated set up.
Once physical stores open up again, AR has other interesting possibilities. Why not have your shopping list linked to an in-store finder. It can make moving around the store faster to find that elusive product.
Once there, why not bring up a virtual assistant from the manufacturer with information about the product. They can demonstrate the product and its usage in an interactive way without need of an elusive salesperson.
It is easy to dream up AR applications, it is less easy to demonstrate they will be profitable. A part of the challenge however is to build up an ecosystem. Content (3D models), access devices (such as phones and glasses), and user applications need to evolve together. I am excited by the possibility of affordable AR glasses. Greater availability of hardware I think will spur on the creation of more raw content and then more novel applications using that content. I do think AR glasses will be a lot more popular than VR headsets as they are more useful for the same cost.
But there are challenges to overcome. Not only technical challenges, but social / privacy challenges if the glasses include a camera. It would feel awkward if people walked around pointing a phone at people they met all day long, filming them. That same concern needs to be solved for glasses so they are socially acceptable.