ARBW #10: Why Apple and Android AR are Like the DEC VAX



For those of you who are neither students of computer history or old, like me, I want to talk about the DEC VAX and why AR on iPhones and Androids keeps making me think of that brief shining star of passing times.

The VAX was the flagship product of the Digital Equipment Corp. It’s co-founder Ken Olsen insisted it be called the Digital VAX, but no one cared. What’s important here is that for a brief, forgotten time in the late 1970s into the 1980s, the VAX was considered the most disruptive hardware technology for business. It started and dominated a category called minicomputers.

What was important about minis, as they were usually called, is that they gave businesses almost as much computing power as mainframes for a lot less money. What is important about them now is that they greatly expanded who could use computers and made people want them more and more, before they faded into computing history obscurity. They also made programming easier, so that more people could use computers to do more things–at least in business environments.

More people saw more ways they could do more things at work, if not yet in the home.

‘Snake Oil’

Olsen was considered the greatest tech entrepreneur of his time. I interviewed him as a rookie reporter in the early 1970s and found him more than a little patronizing. He kept calling me ‘son,’ and told me when I should write things down in my stenographer’s notebook.

What impressed me is not that he included other members of the DEC team as deserving so much credit, it was his seeming attitude that now that the VAX had been invented, there was little need for anything else in computing. In the following years, he would dismiss the promising new UNIX operating systems as “snake oil,” and held absolutely no use for the grassroots movement taking shape behind what was then called microcomputers and would eventually be called PCs.

Shortly after the Macintosh was introduced, Olsen declared, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”

All that is a bit beside my point, which is that a great many technologies come and go. Some of them, like the DEC VAX, are transitional in that they transport computing from one point to another in a lasting way as did the minicomputers and the VAX.

Transitional, however is not transformative. Transformative technology changes life, work, culture and lasts for very long periods of time.

Apple with its ARKit and Google with ARCore are good and important transitional technologies. They will enable many millions of people to experience AR. Mostly, these will be everyday people looking for fun games and entertainment, or to perform some task such as seeing what a showroom couch will look like at home without having to take it home.

the 4th transformationChange Everything

But, AR in handsets is only transitional technology. It is not representative of the Transformation that Robert Scoble and I discussed in our book. A Transformation which we argued will change everything including global culture and commerce.

Today’s handset AR is leading edge technology for consumers. For the most part, tech professionals are underwhelmed with what has been produced. Many tell me that it will get better soon. That more exciting AR smartphone apps are on their way and I should just wait.

I do not believe this is the case. I do not think it’s possible to give users a full AR experience until this technology moves to headsets a few years down the line. The ARKit wonderment of 2017 or 18 will be the manual typewriter phase of the AR Transformation.

There are just too many limitations:

  • It is awkward to walk around holding a device in your hands to see AR. It goes against the way we already use our phones and the act of holding up the phone is, in itself, a barrier to the immersion that you experience in headsets.
  • You cannot use you hands to do other things, thus killing one of the most compelling features of headset AR.
  • Sound is more important to an immersive technology experience, than many people realize, and you simply cannot enjoy the effects of stereoscopic sounds with handsets.

So what does all this mean to business decision makers, to corporate teams and consultants trying to map immersive technology strategies? Should your company just sit and wait until the headset issues such as battery, weight, fashionability, comfort and adoption all get worked out?

Most technologists and strategists I talk to think that mass adoption of affordable headsets is probably less than five years away and perhaps as soon as 2020.

Why not just wait?

My response is that depends greatly on what your business is. If you are an enterprise or involved in the backroom productivity of a consumer-facing operation, my answer is that probably makes sense. I have yet to see a mobile app that makes sense for the enterprise and I have yet to speak to an enterprise player who is considering it.

If you are a retailer, a healthcare service provider, or an educator, I think you have no choice, but to give your shoppers, patients and customers as good an experience as you possibly can, and that is probably going to involve smartphones for a few more years.

Developing an AR app for a phone will also help get your team and culture better prepared for things to come, and it probably is necessary to do what your competitor might do first, if you do not hurry.

Lost in Transition

Just remember AR phones are just transitional, and you should not get lost in something that will be unimportant in 3-to-5 years. Five years from now, they will not have much relevance in my view. In terms of strategy, you really need to be thinking now about a very big tomorrow when everyday people will be using headsets at work and play, at home and in malls.

If you are a retailer or in some other form of public facing business such as real estate, entertainment, healthcare or education, you should move forward now, so that you can enhance your customer’s experience today and for the next few years.

But I strongly advise you to keep in mind that in the next three-to-five years, your customers will start wanting headset experiences. The earliest to have that expectation will be your younger and more affluent customers.

If you are thinking about the enterprise or the backrooms of retail operations, I would pay little attention to AR on smartphones. I would start looking at headsets now, and thinking about how they will continue to emerge over the next few years.

If you are interested, I am presenting an online class on this topic on Nov. 28. As a subscriber to ARBW, you can have a $20 discount on the $197 price. Just click here to subscribe and then reach out to my assistant, Karelyn Lambert to obtain the code.


Elsewhere in the AR World

AR Improves Logistics

My upcoming class spends a good deal of time talking about logistics. It may not be as exciting as alien zapping in 3D, which garners far more editorial attention, but every business thinker understands the significant bottom-line implications of the topic.

It is not just the B2B enterprise. Logistics is the backbone of every retail operation, whether it is brick-and-mortar, online or multi-channel.

Issues such as faster delivery, low-cost routing, load optimization and meeting customer deadlines directly impact company finances.

Adopting of AR for logistic-related activities is accelerating for these reasons, and the cost seems almost irrelevent to the issues at hand. While the cost of headsets may discourage a Best Buy shopper, an operations manager trying to squeeze additional dimes and dollars out of warehouse operations considers $1,500-$3,000 per device to be a small investment with significant upside potential.

For example, DHL has partnered with Ricoh in a ‘Vision Picking’ project. The term refers to the process of seeing what needs to be shipped and accurately selecting it from  hundreds of incorrect—but similar—parts. Collectively, this is a multi-billion dollar issue for any company needing to move things from place-to-place.

ARBW 10 Pic 2According to PWC, a DHL-Ricoh test in the Netherlands resulted in a 25 percent reduction of logistical costs. Deloitte reports that more than ten percent of the Fortune 500 companies have immersive technology projects going on in logistics.

“Workers in factories and warehouses, along with those who perform service in the field, can benefit from AR/VR devices that streamline workflow by providing access to hands-free information while completing a manual task, such as maintenance or repair.

Smart glasses or head-mounted displays can overlay instructions, maps, system information or real-time feedback over a worker’s field of view. Some of these applications also offer the ability to collaborate with colleagues from remote locations who can see what the user sees and can guide him to troubleshoot any issues,” Deloitte wrote.

Elsewhere, VR is being used to train new warehouse employees, reduce the number of mistakes made by new employees and other ways similar to what I reported previously is happening with Walmart retail employees.

So much media attention is going to the visually stimulating stuff of VR. I am more excited about the nuts and bolts of business: logistics, training, safety and assembling products. This is the stuff that bottom-lines are made of, and it is where I believe the overwhelming action of the next five years will be for AR.


Truck Drivers in Headsets

While I spent some time this week researching heads-up displays (HUDs) in automobiles, I was surprised to discover that big rig truck drivers were moving faster toward headset adoption than the folks at Porsche and even Tesla.

Of course, the big rig drivers will not be wearing headsets as they careen down the world’s highways.—although they will soon be enjoying HUDs in their windshields, so that they do not need to unsafely look down at dashboards.

The transportation industry employs over 8.7 million people in the United States, with a majority of them being truck drivers. Long-haul drivers face a difficult time on the road should their vehicle suffer a mechanical issue. Breakdowns cost time and money. When an inoperable van sits in a breakdown lane, drivers have to locate an available repair service nearby, and then just sit and wait as deadlines and schedules erode.

But now there’s headset AR repair instructions, so drivers can make minor repairs themselves, and then, be on their way in a few minutes, rather than a few hours or sometimes days. According to Freightless, an online trade publication, early adopters have started to equip drivers with smart glasses containing software from AR developers such as Re-flekt.

It’s apps like these that are starting to transform the world by improving efficiency, productivity, safety and ultimately, profitability. They don’t generate much media, but they keep trucks on roads, pick orders in warehouses, and ensure safety compliance in factories. This makes me believe that immersive technologies will transform the core infrastructure of commerce.


A Harvard Guide to AR Management

I liked an article that appeared in the current Harvard Business Review arguing that all managers need an AR strategy now. You may find some of the article a bit simplistic in describing technologies, but it makes a very important point: Business decision makers need to think about immersive technology as a long-term strategy rather than just a pilot project.

HBRSince she joined up with Transformation Group, Irena Cronin and I have given a good deal of thinking to how we should consult, educate and present to corporations. Very often we hear requests for simple, low-risk, get-started projects, which we are happy to accommodate.

But, pilot projects make sense only if they initiate a series of baby steps toward a focused, strategic goal. If you do not start with an end in mind, then as the old adage goes—any road will get you there.


Capturing Holographic Memories

While much of the last two weeks had me immersed in enterprise and backroom AR technologies in preparation for my upcoming class, I was touched and perhaps inspired by a Verge article on capturing holographic memories.

MemoriesThe idea is simple, you can use AR, even on a phone, to capture one generation’s thoughts for another to enjoy later down the line. When you capture baby’s first steps in 3D, you can save them to present to that baby on his wedding day. Likewise, the wisdom of an elderly person in her twilight years can be captured and saved for an unborn grandchild to experience on their wedding day as well.

I love this app. I see remarkably poignant business applications as well. In the enterprise, the wisdom of someone about to retire can be shared with future generations doing the same work. The founding parent of a startup company may be able to address hundreds of future employees about the original vision in a hundred-years, in the hope that culture does not lose its way, even as tech changes the nature of an enterprise.


The Future of Exhibits

I have not yet had the chance to visit the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation, where I am told there is a jaw-dropping AR variation of the popular traveling exhibit called Body Worlds. The Tech Museum version is called Body Worlds Decoded.

AR BodyVisitors are handed Lenovo Phab 2 phones using Google Tango technology. Suddenly, the Body Works forms are immersive. Visitors can tour the inside of human bodies to see the most intricate of details.

What a great way to teach anatomy to students, or for that matter, teach anything to anyone.

More than that, this is the future of exhibits. I see a day when every museum, every classroom, every employee orientation, every guided tour and every exhibit booth at CES will use AR or VR to give visitors a more immersive experience.

It is a natural evolution. Just like it was when video started to replace still pictures to inform people more realistically. Tech just makes the human experience better; don’t you think?


ODG Goes to Saks

I have never thought of Saks as an early mover in any form of technology. It is heartening to see such a traditional merchant moving toward immersive customer experiences even if the tech being shown in the video breaks no new ground.

What interests me here is that this partnership between Saks, Qualcomm and MasterCard is using ODG headsets. They are offered in-store to Saks shoppers.

Founded in 1998, ODG is the granddaddy of AR headset makers. The headsets are in their eighth generation of refinement. ODG has long been a respected player as an OEM supplier to industrial and military partners.

ODG is also a personal sentimental favorite. Other than a few low-end offerings such as Cardboard, ODG’s headset was my first experience in true Mixed Reality, and the quality of what I saw stunned me, particularly related to field of view.  I am looking forward to visiting them with Irena Cronin in a few weeks, and I am curious to see how far they have progressed since I tried on the ODG 7.

I am thrilled to see companies making a foray into consumer applications, such as the video shows being used at Saks. I hope to see these efforts in more retail venues. As well as with Meta, my other favorite headset maker, who recently launched a downright sexy new Meta 2 which sells for $1500, half the price of last year’s model, putting it on a trajectory for a consumer-priced Meta 3 at about this time next year.

Irena and I will visit Meta on the same day, and I will report on both after those meetings.

To be clear, I am no cheerleader for any one tech vendor. I am on the side of business adopters and end-users. I do what I can to report on innovations that will seed adoption, and the more tech companies competing for that business, the faster the innovation will come and the lower the adoption costs involved will be.

I tend to favor underdogs. ODG and Meta are hardly the dark horses who come from behind in movies. They are not even the cool kids in the garages of classic startups. They are both established companies with formidable resources and teams. But, their names are not recognized ubiquitously like Microsoft, Samsung, Apple or Google, so I enjoy seeing the challenges they bring to the playing field, and if they cause some disruption to the game, then corporate partners and end-users are better off for it.

To be clear, ODG has simply entered into a deal with other businesses that include Saks, Qualcomm and a credit card company. They are not selling to end-users at this point. But, to see them in a venue where shoppers are involved is heartening to me.

Immersing Audiences in Slide Decks

Another pleasant surprise since my last ARBW newsletter was a Wired magazine piece about Prezi, the presentation software company, who is starting to build AR functionality into its software.

I have no idea whether Powerpoint, Keynote and Google Slides, three formidable competitors are entertaining similar plans, but I would assume so, since Prezi is already making noise. Once again, as an end-userist, I will be thrilled to see it. AR is just better for presenting. The benefits are pretty self-evident, or so it seems to me.

Instead of sitting and watching presentation decks, which can sometimes be about as exciting as reading a foreign language phone directory, we can now become immersed inside a deck, where we will see more, learn more and retain more.

At least, that is how I see it.


Giving Thanks for AR

This will be my last ARBW before the American Thanksgiving Holiday. It happens to be my favorite holiday, when I actually pause to consider the abundance of reasons for being thankful.


This year has been more of a roller coaster than most, and yet, I have so much to be thankful for that I feel uncharacteristically humbled. Among the many reasons, is that I enjoy writing this newsletter so much, and I have so many readers, like you, to be thankful for.

Happy Holiday, no matter what it is you celebrate.

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