May 2015
By Dirk Schart

Image: © www.microsoft.com

Dirk Schart heads the corporate communications and marketing department at technology company RE’FLEKT in Munich. As a blogger and author, he writes about digital technology, wearables and interactive media. He is currently writing a book about Augmented Reality that will be released in July 2015. In lectures and workshops Dirk Schart shares his knowledge on Augmented and Virtual Reality, wearables and digital marketing. He studied communications science, marketing and business administration and received the Corporate Media Award in 2014.


ds[at]re-flekt.com
www.re-flekt.com


 


 

New realities: How we interact with digital content in the future

Augmented Reality (AR) is no longer just an innovative buzzword. Companies are looking for ever more intuitive ways to visualize the mountains of data they have on their servers. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg considers AR one of the most important platforms for the next few years. So, how far has the technology come and which devices are already available?

Many people wonder why it has taken AR so long to mature. It is not that companies didn’t see the benefits. Rather, the limiting factor has been the hardware. Now that hardware performance has improved, we also see a rapidly growing number of AR applications. We are already accustomed to smartphones and tablets. And now big players like Google, Sony and Microsoft are developing specific hardware for Augmented Reality – especially for the B2B market.

These new technologies have received a lot of media attention recently. Many new devices with fascinating concepts have been introduced in the past months. This is a clear indication that we are reaching the next level of AR business applications.

Right now smartglasses and smartwatches are getting a lot of attention. Despite the euphoria that these latest wearable devices have generated, there is still one important question: tablet or glasses?

The time for Augmented Reality begins now

Steve Jobs’ presentation of the iPhone in 2007 marked the beginning of a new age for Augmented Reality: For the first time you could experience AR without having to wear a heavy and uncomfortable helmet. Now we could access Augmented Reality with our own devices – devices that had a better performance than Neil Armstrong’s computer in his legendary mission to the moon.

Since then we have become accustomed to smartphones, tablets, phablets and glasses. But the mobile revolution didn’t just bring us more devices. Instead of buying software packages, we now download mobile apps for any kind of purpose. Cross-platforms like Unity offer software developers an easy way to create Augmented Reality apps for different devices and platforms.

While many people think that the demand for platforms corresponds to the sales of devices – it does not. Especially in B2B business, companies prefer iOS devices or Windows tablets. This is because their staff is already well familiar with the typical gestures for using an Apple device, such as zooming in with two fingers, etc. That means users don’t need to expend much effort to learn how to use another Apple device, but can apply the same gestures on their new devices. Windows tablets are similarly attractive because Microsoft has the interfaces to standard software for databases or content management systems.

 

Why we need Augmented Reality

Before we take a closer look at the available devices, their benefits and individual use, let’s talk about how our behavior has changed in terms of receiving information. Over the past 30 years, the number of media channels has increased from a manageable amount (e.g. TV, radio, newspapers) to an ever-growing mass of online and digital media as well as apps. The result: a daily battle for attention. As companies try to reach their target groups through various kinds of media, communication specialists face the challenge of choosing the right channel for their users or target groups.

Whether at work, at home or on vacation, we are constantly bombarded with information of all kinds. Whether we follow instructions or presentations at work, watch TV or browse the Internet at home – our brain constantly has to filter the important bits and pieces from the flood of information. And it has to do this in a minimum of time: According to studies, we are only able to record five percent of the advertisements we are confronted with. That means that 95 percent of those ads are actually not reaching us. We have learned to decide and select really quickly what we think is interesting or important to us. This means that if you want to explain or communicate something or send a specific message – you have to find your way into this selected five percent.

 

Content and context

So how can we reach people? To answer this, let’s take a brief look at cognition science to see how we perceive content. One important factor is awareness. Think about yourself: when you are interested in something you become aware of the content. If you find yourself in a dangerous situation, you become alert. The better the content fits your current situation and location, the more awareness you have for the message or information.

It is not enough to only provide content. It is important to create and deliver contextual content – at the right time, in right place and on the right device. Let me give you an example: Have you ever read the owner’s manual of your car? No? What a surprise. Most people only read it when a warning light flickers on the dashboard and then spend valuable time searching for the cause in their manuals. With the right device and interface you will always have access to the right content at the right time and location.

One of the benefits of mobile devices is their ability to deliver contextual content. Modern devices like smartphones and tablets have many sensors integrated for contextual information. This means that it is not limited by the hardware. The applications simply have to use the devices in the right way. This offers fantastic opportunities and a completely new field for creating instructions for technical communication.

 

The next generation of devices

At the beginning I asked the question: tablet or glasses? This question is currently raised frequently. The big advantage of smartphones is that we have them with us at all times. We don’t need any additional device for receiving contextual content. Many people think that smartglasses will replace tablets and smartphones, but this won’t happen during the next few years. Nevertheless, smartglasses provide a huge potential.

If using a mobile device, you have to take it out of your pocket, maybe unlock it. Only then are you able to get access to the content. Smartglasses deliver content directly into your field of vision – exactly where you need it. This happens hands-free. This can be a big advantage if you are working or following step-by-step instructions to repair something.

Available and future devices

When describing smartglasses and future devices, we focus on three main areas: practical use, grade of immersion, and availability on the market. Practical use means: What can you already do with it, how comfortable is it to use, and how long does the battery last? Grade of immersion refers to how well a user can still perceive the real environment. The more closed the device, the stronger the immersion. Less immersion is common for Augmented Reality while full immersion is typical for Virtual Reality glasses. Finally, we take a look at whether the device is already on the market or still in development. As we are not able to show all the current and future devices in this article, we introduce an exemplary selection of wearables.

 

Image: © www.google.com

Google Glass

Many people think that Google Glass was built for Augmented Reality. However, the intention of Google was actually to provide users with contextual content. Glass doesn’t need a large field of view. It delivers the content through a prism onto one eye – the reason why it is called Glass and not Glasses. It is really lightweight and comfortable to wear. In addition, Google came up with designer collections so that the device now also works for people who wear glasses for optical correction. At any rate, the practical use for Augmented Reality is limited on account of the performance of the device itself as well as the short battery life. When used in camera mode, the battery will only last about 30 minutes. Google Glass is practical for showing annotations at a real scene. 3D overlays and animations are better for other glasses with a larger field of view. In January 2015, the Google Glass Explorer program was terminated, so the first version of the Glass is no longer available. Google has received a lot of feedback from the beta testers and is now focusing on future versions of Glass.

Image: © www.epson.com

Epson Moverio

Epson’s Moverio is not as stylish as Google Glass. It is bigger, heavier and doesn’t have a solution for optical correction. It comes with a small box containing battery, processor and control unit. One benefit is that the battery is larger and lasts longer. Even with Augmented Reality you can work for an hour or more. Although the content is displayed in both eyes you can still see the environment at the same time. This combination is ideal for Augmented Reality: You see the digital content superimposed onto the real environment. The Moverio is more immersive than Google Glass. It is possible to work with it for up to an hour, then it gets too heavy. Typical use scenarios include providing the user with digital and contextual information for manuals, documentation or navigation. One of the major benefits: Epson Moverio is available for around 700 Euro (or US$700).

Image: © www.microsoft.com

Microsoft Hololens

It was a big surprise when Microsoft unveiled the Hololens. What they showed in their concept video is exactly what is needed for Augmented Reality. The Hololens is bigger than Google Glass and Epson Moverio but seems to be more ergonomic. Due to the full screen in front of your eyes it might be more immersive. What we don’t know yet is what is already possible and what is still a concept. However, the important fact is that Microsoft believes in the benefits of Augmented Reality. Microsoft has not yet revealed an exact date when Hololens will become available. More information might follow at the Microsoft Build Conference in early May 2015.

Image: © www.samsung.com

Samsung Gear VR

At first glance, Gear VR appears to be Virtual Reality glasses. It is a completely closed device with a large field of view. The Gear is powered by a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. Because you can run Augmented Reality applications with this device, you can easily use them with the Gear VR. It provides a unique experience as you find yourself in a strong immersive environment. This is particularly beneficial for practical use in a simulation or training scenario. An added advantage is that it sits well on your head and you can work safely with it. The Gear VR is available for about 200 Euro (or US$300). There are two versions: one for the Galaxy Note 4 and one for the latest version, the Galaxy S6.

Image: © www.google.com

Google Project Tango

Last but not least: a tablet device. Google’s Project Tango is a special tablet fitted with more sensors. The big difference from existing devices is that it has a depth sensor. This is a camera comparable to Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox. You can scan your environment in 3D, and the device can then use this information to provide you with contextual information. For instance: When you walk through a supermarket, the device scans the shelves and products, and displays additional information such as special offers. The option of scanning 3D objects in a real environment and using these scans is an important step for Augmented Reality. It is yet uncertain as to when Tango will hit the market. It is already used for NASA projects and other prototypes. Last year Google announced that they are collaborating with the hardware manufacturer LG.

 

Many more devices will be introduced over the next weeks and months. The devices presented here only provide an overview of the most important current developments.

 

How we interact

A functioning device is one important aspect – the user is the other. One of the most important requirements for the acceptance of new devices is that users can easily handle the new assistants. When we use them in private life, we are open to spend more time to discover the features and learn how to operate them. At work we might not have that time, so we might be quick to deem a new device too complex and re-settle for existing systems or devices.

One of the big challenges of developing AR devices is to connect the user with the device and the content without any unnatural elements. Often new user interfaces, controllers and gestures need to be developed. To be intuitive and easy to follow, the gestures in particular need to be inspired by natural gestures that we know from our daily lives or from using familiar devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Where is AR today?

By 2015, Augmented Reality has already come a long way: the hardware has improved and more devices are entering the market. All big players are working on solutions. Apparently, Apple is also working on an AR device. The improved hardware allows better applications and use cases.

Getting back to the question of tablet versus glasses, it can be said that currently tablets and smartphones are the best solutions when working with AR. The reasons are: superior performance, higher resolution, and better sensors. In addition, many people already have mobile devices and know how to handle them. The glasses – on the other hand – are still heavy, not overly comfortable and often lacking solutions for optical corrections. This year will bring more devices and by the beginning of 2016, the glasses will be used in different areas – perhaps not all day long, but certainly for specific tasks. The future of contextual content – and this is for sure – will be glasses.