ARBW #12: Five Transformational AR StartUps to Watch

Meta at CES

AR Startup

ARBW #12

Five Transformational AR StartUps

My love for Silicon Valley was shaped by spunky little startups who understood that they were facing impossible odds, yet took on giants in the marketplace and prevailed.  Some of these withered and died for one reason or another; others flourished but then got acquired.

Some resisted acquisition attempts, ignored experts who saw  them facing insurmountable barriers, and decided to go it alone. These include Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, who don’t just dominate AR and VR, they are the most valuable and powerful corporate entities on Earth.

This formidable gang of five got there for a combination of reasons, but what is certain is that they had to present the world with disruptive technologies that changed work and life.

Once again, we have entered times being rapidly changed by technology: it is not just AR, VR and the secret sauce called AI. There are robotics, cybercurrencies, autonomous vehicles and aircraft, more.

There is no doubt in my mind the the five mighty companies will remain formidable during this wormhole of change we are just now entering. These five giants have proven more adept at meeting challenges of change than did their many forgotten  Goliaths who was stood on the top of  the competitive mountaintops. Each is quite good at acquiring or destroying little engines of companies that could change the world.

Still, I am seeing companies of great promise. If they are going to unseat these might incumbents, they are going to change them, as each establishes their own strong positions on the competitive playing fields. They are each quite diverse in what they do and how they do.

Probably, not all of them will opt to remain independent, but each is likely to have a long ramp over the next few years, where they will grow from promising early phase companies to independent powerhouse.

Let’s look at the five that seem most promising.

1. Meta: Focusing on the OSMeta at CES

Last month, Irena Cronin, Transformation Group’s Head of Research and Innovation, and I met with David Gene Oh, Meta’s Head of Developer Relations. He gave us a preview of what they have now shown at CESand we were favorably impressed.

The Meta 2 headset has been refined to make it lighter weight and more comfortable. Additionally, Meta has partnered with Ultrahaptics and Zerolight, two haptic technology developers who work on providing AR and VR activation experiences in the automotive industry.

Irena and I both tried on the glasses and had similar impressions. For me, the first thing I noticed was that because it was more comfortable, wearing it felt more natural allowing me a more immersive experience than I had when I tried a Meta 2 prototype nearly a year earlier. The second thing I noticed was the impressive improvements to the optics that allowed me to see virtual images so sharply that they seemed almost real. The field of view also seemed to have widened a bit as well.

In front of us, was a virtual bookshelf containing a series of objects. David encouraged us to choose one of them and then reach out to pick it up just using our hands. There was no controller and no weird gestures were required.

Taking first turn with the headset, Irena grabbed hold of the planet Earth, lifted it up and released it in midair. She used her hands to make it larger and then to spin it around. In my demo, I used the same hand gestures to explore a realistic human brain.

Irena observed,”The operating system for Meta 2 had greatly improved since the last time I had demoed it just a few months before it. Tracking and images were crisper and manipulation with hand movements was easier. I was greatly impressed.”

Irena had nailed it:  Oh told us: Moving forward, “Meta will focus on operating systems.

I think this strategy is game-changing for Meta and perhaps the industry itself. To me, this is a master stroke. It will allow the company to do what founder-CEO Meron Gribetz  has consistently declared he wants to do: remain independent. As the developer and designer of operating systems, Meta, Oh told us, “Meta can address a whole new set of ideas around interaction and how users will be productive using AR technology. We have a team of neuroscientists focused on user interactions because the old OS paradigm from 2D [monitors] to 3D [AR] will have to be written, so why not [by] us?”

In Meta’s vision, all objects will have a digital presence. Users will just look for something and then grab it. Users will be able to reach out and actually grab a virtual object using the Meta OS and sensors or haptic technologies from companies like Ultrahaptics. For example, you will be able to look at a 3D album cover, grab it and play it using a similar interface to what Irena and I used with the planet and brain.

When I pointed out that Meta’s Achilles’ Heel seemed to be that it was the only major AR device maker that still remained tethered to a computer which seriously limits movement for industrial and consumer apps, Oh conceded that this was true and promised the tether would eventually disappear once the tech would allow Meta’s optics and field of view without requiring the power of an external computer.

To grab and manipulate a hologram, you need to see the entire object, and it needs to appear in very high fidelity. Meta will also needs to produce this experience at a competitively low price.

Meta,  asserted that Microsoft Hololens and ODG R-8 and R-9 each have certain advantages. ODG was best in outdoor applications, and Hololens, according to Oh, provides the best immersive AR experience, so that users in Meta 2 headsets can interact up close with 3D models using a wider field of view

CES attendees seemed to have been as impressed with Meta as we were. Their demo allowed attendees to ogle and virtually fondle a $2.5 million super car. In my research, it was the most discussed AR exhibit and CES Awarded it for the Most Innovative Exhibit.

Meta also announced a partnership with Dell, its first major hardware partnership. Based on Oh’s statement related to focus on OS and the Dell deal, I would not be surprised to see Meta go out of the device business somewhere down the line.

Rather than continue to design headsets against the likes of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and eventually Apple and Amazon, it seems to me Meta could possibly convert one or more of them into customers.

I also continue to believe that Meta is dedicated to remaining independent of large competitors that might want to gobble it up and take the thorn out of their side. I have twice interviewed Meron Gribetz, who seems passionate about staying independent during these foundational years in the AR transformation. Oh echoed those thoughts with equal passion in this more recent interview.

Whether Meta endures and prevails as an independent company remains to be seen. Either way, it is doing something now that changes the speed at which AR headsets will reach their full potential. It has put its focus on the operating system, which is where its focus belongs for now.

2. Prezi: Presenting In Depth

Prezi

There’s a story about the above photo that I’ll get to in a moment. First, I need to give you a little context.

I make a lot of presentations, some are live and others are streamed. Historically, I have used Powerpoint, Keynote and Google Slides. Each has attributes I like, but a potential downside to them, Jill Duffy observed in an article last week announcing PC magazine’s Award to Prezi Next as the Best Presentation Software of 2018. It is the first presentation software to enable AR, which it does in an innovative and game-changing way.

Now back to the above photo. This is a photo of a wall screen where you see Irena, Prezi CEO Peter Arvai and myself gathered in a small room. The guy with the gun does not exist. He is a virtual object.

Yet both Irena and I felt real discomfort from the illusion that the gunman was really there, pointing a weapon at our heads.

It underscores how much more vivid Prezi AR presentations actually are. They are more likely to take your breath away than leave you snoring. As Irena observed, “Prezi allows the person putting together a presentation to be so much more creative than if they had used PowerPoint or Google Slides. Connections between ideas and points could be more directly visually addressed. As a result, presenters are able to become better story-tellers and persuaders. Communication is upped a notch. The integration of AR into Prezi looks extremely promising and the method by which it is done does not appear to be hard to do. I’m really looking forward to getting more updates about it.”

Prezi is not even an AR company. Instead it is an underdog in presentation software. They are eclipsed by PowerPoint, Keynote and Google Slides at least for the time being.

But, they are already important – and positioned to take very significant slices of market share over the next five years. They are important to me because they are early demonstrators of how AR and VR will change all things. All application software will have immersive components, particularly productivity software.

Prezi get the boost by being the first to apply it to a vital category.

While Prezi may be the newer, smaller contender, doing battle against technology’s King Kong, Godzilla, and Incredible Hulk, the company is doing quite well. Since it was founded in 2009, the website claims it has been used by 85 million people for over 325 million presentations. With the addition of AR, it has a killer component to an essential business and teaching app.

It is also strongest  with the most preferred customers: students and recent workplace entrants. Perhaps, even more important is that Prezi is favored among young people. Its strongest market niche has been education. As Prezi users graduate and enter the business world, they often evangelize the product to colleagues at work. Today, Prezi’s greatest area of growth is the business user.

Young customers who are early adopters on a global level are not just low hanging fruit, but the sweetest fruit on a growing tree. Biology indicates that they will be Prezi users for a longer time period than older PowerPoint users.

To be clear, older users are already adopting Prezi AR in significant numbers. Just watch this TED talk by Stanford University’s neuro-endocrinologist and author Robert Sapolsky where the same virtual guy with the gun pops up yet again.

 

I think Prezi offers a more dramatic and effective way to present. It breaks the natural existing barriers between speakers and their presentation materials. There is a “Wow” factor in it that you just cannot achieve in PowerPoint.

However, here’s the funny thing about “Wow” factors: they eventually become the anticipated norm. What dazzles audiences today will be expected by audiences tomorrow.

It just so happens that I was head of the PR agency that launched PowerPoint. When we showed business users those headlines followed by bullet points on a computer screen, it took their breath away. It was so much more exciting than the flip charts it replaced.

Showing a PowerPoint presentation as it is today four years from now when there will be 100 million people with AR headsets according to IDC, and over a billion people with AR capability in their handsets, will be about as exciting as etching your key points on parchment and nailing them to the auditorium door.

I am sure that in these same four years other presentation software companies will have added AR technologies to their capabilities as well, but in so doing, they will position Prezi as the thought and technology leader in this category. Prezi will be embraced by earlier adopters and the people who are most likely to influence others at work.

3. Magic Leap: Is the Reality Really Real?

Let me put aside my pompoms and other cheerleading paraphernalia. The most famous AR underdog is also among the best financed, having raised just short of $2 billion in less than three years.

It has done this without shipping a single product, without announcing any formidable partnerships, by filing numerous patents that don’t quite reveal precisely what the headsets under development will do, and by releasing the spectacular demo above, which was later revealed to be a fake.

Until about ten years ago, the tech industry had a name for products that behaved this way. Software or hardware that was announced and promoted, but never made available or was withdrawn, was called vaporware. There were many examples, and more than one case where the investments and company assets disappeared in the night to some far off place that had no extradition agreements with the US.

Could Magic Leap be the greatest vaporware play of all time? Personally, I think that is entirely possible, but I am not really in a position to say for certain, one way or another. I have never seen the product; never met someone working for the company, and do not quite understand the mysterious ways that the prototypes that others report on seem to break the basic laws of physics to produce a product as magical as the faked whale seems to be.

Those few who have seen Magic Leap glasses seem to be absolutely blown away by their experience. The two who spoke the most convincingly to me were both Hollywood executives who assured me that what Magic Leap would launch—supposedly early this year—would blow away everything I had seen and heard about this mystical product backed by Google and Alibaba.

Credible tech reporters, such as Rolling Stone’s Brian Crecente, have written about Magic Leap in ways that seem like they were “captivated by magical vision” to use the words of founder and CEO Rony Abovitz.

Here’s what Abovitz told him:

“You will have your own personal life stream,” Abovitz said. “You also have your own identity and our view is that the life stream belongs to you. It’s a data set that, just like writing a book, is your personal copy. That means there is a need to make people aware that they have a life stream that has value and then connecting that to other things that you could have; goods and services and interactions around the life stream. So just like you can write a book and trade that for something, I want to license it and get paid, we believe the life stream is yours. Our job is to create a series of protections around it. But then to enable creators and developers to build really cool things if you let them access part of it.

“So it’s always explicit, it’s always permission-based. But there are amazing experiences and possibilities you can have. The experiential part is the best because if I just see objects that are disconnect from me in the world, there is not really an experience. I am just looking at something. But if something is aware of me and aware of the environment and I am aware of it, now you are in a whole new place. You’re in a whole new kind of story-telling that really begins to feel like life. So our system knows where your eyes are looking, where you are in space, where the world is and what you are saying and what you are hearing and that provides input. So somebody could know where you are and come right up to you, look you in the eye. You could say hello to something and then do something else. So you have this ability to have presence and awareness and interaction with characters and stories and experiences. Even if it’s something simple like there is a web space and the web space acknowledges you or I just want to leave something and you could leave it there and come back to it later. So I could leave a digital object somewhere and it could stay there. So that awareness became something we emerged into. We started out focusing on the light field, but we realized the thing was really special computing. The sensing and awareness, your sensing and awareness combined with the visualization became really powerful.”

To be honest, I have read through these paragraphs a few ties, and while I am captivated by the eloquence and vision of it, I still don’t know quite what these glasses are supposed to do or for whom.

I don’t understand how a web space is made to respond to my headset with current web space technologies. I don’t understand what it means to be able to leave something and come back to it in AR.

I don’t know if the devices are intended for consumers or enterprise workers. I have no idea about price, availability, distribution, who makes the software, or who is beta testing the product supposedly near-ready to be unveiled.

If Magic Leap, is real and it ships sometime in the near future, then maybe it is a game changer—and maybe not. I cannot rule out that people closer to the company extol how great it’s going to be. That money vaster and smarter than my own is behind it.

If this is true, then the world of AR will be a better place. If not, then the word “vaporware” will be revived and Magic Leap will be the best example ever.

We shall see. If Magic Leap can do what it keeps promising it can do, then it will leapfrog to the forefront of AR headsets and software. There are those of us who just don’t believe in Magic, but if we are proven wrong the world will be a better place for what this company contributes.

4 & 5. Vuzix and Lumus: Glass Children

I still get kidded about putting Google Glass on the cover of Age of Context, my 2014 book with Robert Scoble. Google over-hyped and wrongly positioned a very promising prototype, arousing scorn and ridicule that overshadowed the great promise built into the product.

Rumors to the contrary, Glass has not died. It has been relegated to several large niches including health care, logistics and warehouse picking, where it’s value is beyond dispute.

Also beyond dispute is that despite the media—and consumer—negative reception, the product served as an inspiration for thinkers and technologist who have taken it forward into this transformation.

Glass, in my view, is the trigger point of the Fourth Transformation. While the Glass device is unlikely to be refined or updated, at least two companies have developed flagship products heavily built upon Glass and both were favorably received at CES where each launched promising technologies.

The Vuzix ‘AHA!’

I got to try out a Vuzix Blade at a San Francisco reception at the new US Headquarters of Re’Flekt, a promising German AR software company, which is a Vuzix Partner.

I liked what I saw in the lightweight, sporty headsets that let you do all the basic things you do on a cellphone, or for that matter, on Google Glass. You can use taps and swipes on the right stem of the headset as you could with Glass. But the big ‘Aha!’ is that Blade works with Amazon Alexa and you can whatever you can do on Alexa through natural speech. That is pretty exciting.

You just ask Alexa a question, and the answer appears on your screen. It can show you a map and guide you as you walk or safely drive. I imagine at some point soon you will be able to ask who a person approaching you is and discern whether she or he is a business prospect or a possible assailant. You could also talk to a Glass device using Google Now. But to do so, you had to look up and then tilt your head back about 30 degrees making users appear to be imitating turkeys in a rainstorm.

The device still needs a little tweaking. The battery is limited so that you can only watch a video clip right now. You’d need to plug it in to watch a full length movie. Like Glass, Blade just has a single AR screen, which allows you to see augmented data, but not enjoy 3D just yet. Also the screen is visible to people in front of you, a phenomenon that got a few Glass wearers pitched out of neighborhood taverns.

There are already a few innovative Vuzix apps, that show great potential. An Amsterdam-based startup called Huxley builds AR operating systems for food produced in greenhouses allowing growers to use tech when they are with crops, rather than back at the corporate office. Huxley uses cameras and infrared sensors to be placed around the greenhouse and Vuzix glasses that let the producer see  whether each plant needs adjustment in water, humidity, or temperature.

“With Huxley, we can basically get more food with less water,” Hooks told Business Insider.

The biggest barrier I see to Vuzix adoption currently is price. I was told Vuzix will release an $1800 developer’s version shortly. Later this year, it plans to introduce a consumer version in the range of $1,000. At that price, I think most people would still prefer an iPhone X.

Second, is the issue of consumer branding. The Vuzix name may have some strength in the sunglasses category, but it is not known in consumer electronics, where it will need distribution. Then again, it is already partners with Amazon, through the Alexa deal, which may be all the distribution it needs to become a household name.

Lumus: Miniaturizing the Optics

Lumus

Another promising player is Lumus, an Israeli company known for high quality, minimized optics. This is relevant because every device maker I have talked with readily admits the need for improved smaller optics.

AT CES, Lumus showed two prototypes: one designed for everyday users, and the other for professionals whose work demands more precision, or broader fields of view in this case an impressive 55 degrees. A Facebook friend who saw the two products at CES said that the single screen had been miniaturized to the extent that she could barely notice the screen when it lit up. Lumus, will continue to focus only on OEM relationships. Its current partners include Daqri, the current leader in head-mounted devices for hardhat workers.

The reason why these two nascent companies are on my list is that these headsets are the ultimate vision of the Fourth Transformation. Today, they are in a category called AR Light because they allow limited functionality and optics that make immersive perspectives difficult.

The devices themselves are called Smart Glasses. I believe that over the next five years or less, all the functionality that we now see in the highest end headset will be available in devices that look like smart glasses. However, they will have more functions and be fashionably more diverse and appealing.

Vuzix, Lumus and perhaps ODG are currently the technology leaders in smart glasses. They have the ramp and can lead the way, if they are determined and agile enough. I am rooting for each one, but, as always, I am rooting for the user even more. Two or three players in the same space means faster innovation and lower prices, making it better for the rest of us.

Neither Vuzix, nor Lumus have declared any determinations to remain independent or not, so far as I know. But I like their positions. They are currently small with very exciting ramps in a category that I would call ‘headsets for the rest of us.’

NOTE: ODG, the first Enterprise AR headset company cancelled a meeting with Irene and me shortly before CES. They also announced their first foray into consumer headsets, but I was unable to get details prior to the deadline for this newsletter. They very well could be added to this list as a sixth company that could change your world in the next five years.

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