A fast 7 months since AWE2021, I was fortunate enough to again attend AWE (Augmented World Expo) this year. Keynotes from big names showcased an evolving ecosystem and adoption of an Extended Reality that continues to move beyond AR/VR across the spectrum of human experience. Amid the buzz of conversations, a multitude of talks, and a whirlwind exhibit hall I pulled together a list of ten key takeaways happening in the XR space.
Defining and Refining The “Metaverse”
Last year after facebooks pivot towards the “Metaverse” the term was talked about as a bit of a misnomer at AWE, an overly broad term that didn’t actually mean anything. This year, attendees saw an evolution of the term as people continue to refine its meaning. John Riccittielo, CEO of Unity was one such person. In his keynote, he discussed his latest interpretation of the term “Metaverse”. He described it as many have as the next evolution of the internet, adding “Always real-time, mostly 3d, mostly interactive, mostly social and mostly persistent. ” Several other presenters referred to similar themes in their talks inferring that there is a certain acceptance and attempts to evolve the term to include some degree of definition.
Consumer Market Growth
While the term Metaverse includes the Enterprise, the beachhead is in consumer. A number of consumer-focused companies were out in a larger capacity this year at AWE. Meta was out this year showing more about Horizons and talking about their multitude of XR-centered projects. TikTok was also in the exhibitor hall showing on-site AR using cameras and large screens with AR overlays to show how social media is evolving beyond the phone. SNAP was at AWE as well showing off their latest SNAP Spectacles to creators and consumers to imagine a new way of experiencing an immersive world.
Commercial Adoption Continues to Grow
Along with consumer, XR in the Enterprise continues to expand. Industries including training and education, construction, manufacturing, healthcare, Aerospace, Automotive, and more attended AWE to learn and share their experiences. Among these industries growing list of companies including Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, NASA, Toyota, Walmart, Siemens, and others attended and presented this year on the potential of XR, the use cases they have implemented, their experience with adoption along with the challenges that will need to be overcome to scale XR. The real insight here is that companies are actively engaged in exploring the use cases, business value, implementation steps, and talking with companies about what they need to deploy solutions, and therein is the sign of a maturing of the technology and openness to exploration and adoption by Enterprise companies.
Use Cases Continue to Evolve and Expand
Along with the growth in commercial adoption, use cases also continue to mature and increase. Existing use cases are evolving in their application as well as their sophistication. Such as those in Healthcare with therapeutic use cases, property management in its deployment of Digital Twins, manufacturing with the addition of AI, and training with improved content and tracking. Healthcare solutions continue to evolve and move through testing at a number of organizations around the world. Examples from AWE include Med Device companies using holograms to train surgeons on using their products, the use of streaming content to Surgeons in the operating theater, and the use of XR as therapeutic in several patient scenarios. Remote work is being more closely integrated from supply chains to field users. In the automotive industry, McLaren was described as using XR by design engineers, drivers, and crews to work through engine component design using every angle remotely from around the world through the use of XR.
New cases also continue to emerge. The evolution of Digital Spaces is coming to physical properties with the potential for these spaces to have both physical reality and the Metaverse with related but different experiences. Multiple AEC companies discussed how architecture and engineering are designing more tenant and end-user experiences through the use of XR, AI, and IoT sensors. A VP of Marketing from the Atlanta Braves discussed the potential of XR in built worlds and digital twins. Walmart described the importance of Emotional Intelligence and how XR can play a big role in building EQ as well as how XR fits into Brand Strategy and customer experience as it continues to explore and adopt immersive platforms.
Enterprise Solutions are Maturing
As adoption and use cases evolve, the growing demand to meet the needs of the enterprise also grows. Meeting these needs is critical to the growth of XR. While every enterprise has unique needs, most have similar challenges in content creation, management and distribution, security, device management, user experience, adoption, cost, and more. An important takeaway from AWE is that the industry is actively listening to the needs of Enterprise, and that the solutions they are responding with are moving upwards along the maturity curve.
Content creation, management, and delivery are clear examples of this maturity. Traditional pipelines of static, 2-dimensional content are not suited for these needs of a connected, persistent, 3d future. More and more this is changing and companies were at AWE to discuss how. Nvidea for example presented cloud solutions for asset management and delivery and the evolution of their Omniverse project. AWS discussed how they are developing cloud solutions for the enterprise to handle ingestion, optimization, and delivery. Content authoring solutions like 8th Wall, recently acquired by Niantic were there to talk about how XR standards like WebAR are changing content to delivery in marketing, retail, and other consumer-centered industries. A similar web-based platform Metavrse 2.0 was released at AWE, making 3D content authoring more accessible to creators and more distributed across platforms. Companies looking to adopt XR are inevitably faced with Mobile Device Management. Several MDM solutions including IBM and startups such as ManageXR and ArborXR presented ways to manage devices, users, content, and more. Infrastructure needed to free users up from tethered XR was also discussed. The need to make more ergonomic HMDs is giving rise to solutions to offload compute through solutions such as 5G and Li-Fi (similar to Wi-Fi but with light).
Hardware is evolving
Hardware options have experienced significant growth in the past two years. Consumer-specific applications are evolving with more hardware options such as the crowdfunded Lynx R-1, Tooz as a light glasses-based hardware option, or Tilt5, clearly the future of living room game of the future. Enterprise hardware solutions also continue to evolve. The line for Magic Leap 2 wrapped around the booth within approximately 40 seconds of the doors opening. The wait however was worth it. The headset impressed with a lightweight design and 70-degree field of view. Multiple other hardware vendors such as Realwear, Vuzix, and Rokid discussed their industrial-grade hardware as well as new lightweight glasses. The winner of the Auggie Award for best hardware went to the Varjo Aero. The Varjo XR3, one of the highest if not the highest-end Enterprise HMD on the market today has spun off the consumer-focused Varjo Aero, a similarly impressive HMD with high resolution, low latency, bright display, and automatic adjusting IDP.
New hardware was also on full display. Lightfield technologies such as the Sony Spatial Display and Leia presented desktop solutions that use light to render 3D models in space. This fascinating tech is another example of the evolution of true holograms without the need for head-mounted displays or other devices. Finally, OEMs were also out in full force to meet the evolving needs of hardware manufacturers. For example, as AR use cases evolve to include more and more outdoor applications a growing need is the ability to use AR in all lighting conditions. Hardware is responding by using dimming to invert the lens to darken in bright sunlight.
The Rise of AI at the Edge
Perhaps one of the most interesting and fundamental tools in the future of technology is that of AI. The rapid growth of AI can be seen in everything from cars to personal devices to XR devices. Edge computing is also rapidly evolving to include machine learning and other segments of AI such as Natural Language Processing, and Speech. Among other devices, XR devices are included at the edge and use Computer vision powered by machine learning to identify, classify, and navigate objects and spaces. More examples were at AWE this year that use Machine Learning to identify objects and anchor models to them empowering users to move around models and do more work hands-free, and faster. Data from the cameras is also being used more frequently as input to train models in the cloud and provide immediate feedback to the user, improving training, quality, and experience.
Integration of Multiple Edge Devices
In addition to the use of AI at the edge with HMDs is the use of multiple edge devices to improve experience and data collection. A great example of this is Scope AR’s solution for training and tracking a critical manufacturing process using Computer Vision and Smart Tools. Aerospace company Lockheed Martin builds aircraft that go into space and have specific engineering requirements such as screw pattern and torque. The solution presented blends ML and data collection to help the user learn the screw pattern and torque settings as well as track the installation for quality control. This tracking uses computer vision along with a wi-fi-connected smart tool that can track the torque used on each screw and save them in the cloud to ensure quality installation on these mission-critical tasks. This use of AI at the edge and the convergence of technologies is a great practical use case that provides clear user and business value.
Safety and Standards
Like many technologies, The XR space is fragmented in its technologies and processes. A number of organizations and industry leaders gathered at AWE this year to discuss how the industry is evolving in the adoption and standardization of everything from file formats to safety in the Metaverse. Open standards such as OpenXR and WebXR were discussed in both their utility and universality across platforms. Members of the Khronos Group were there to discuss how they see standards like gltf (the jpg of 3D) and USD (Universal Scene Description developed by Pixar) as staples across platforms. Metaverse safety and inclusion were also discussed in several sessions to help set standards and best practices to make the Metaverse accessible and safe for all.
Community is strong
After last year’s smaller conference due to Covid, many more attendees and vendors packed the conference this year. Familiar faces reconnected, some for the first time IRL. The strength of a shared vision and appreciation drew some similarities to punk rock. Like punk rock is a small yet tightly bound community, XR has a tribal nature in which explorers, creators, and innovators come together to learn and cheer each other on in an industry that has been climbing the mountain for years but is still early in its ascent. Though fairly new to the community I am impressed with the openness to newcomers and ideas that permeate the conference and the community. Believers and evangelists abound at AWE, the strength of a growing industry and strong community were self-evident.
Many more topics were presented at AWE and there are indeed several other trends that are impacting the XR space. The lens one looks through is important as consumer applications are quite different than manufacturing and standards are different when designing AR memes at TikTok than they are for building spaceships at Lockheed Martin. Generally speaking however it is exciting to see an industry continue to mature in the exploration, application, and adoption of XR technologies along with others to continue the march of progress through innovation.
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