Augmented reality (AR) continued to exponentially increase its occupation of available news headlines last year. Perhaps the two most notable moments were the tantalizing performance and fizzling indications of Magic Leap’s over hyped composite videos and the overwhelming commercial success of the smartphone AR game Pokémon GO.
We learned a few interesting facts about both Pokémon GO and Magic Leap. The first fact is about Pokémon GO and the game’s creators Niantic Labs Inc. If you trace the origins of Niantic Labs, you can see that it was created by the founder of Keyhole Inc., John Hanke. But that’s not the interesting part of the story.
Pokémon at its home, with the seal of the CIA at its headquarters. (Image courtesy of New Eastern Outlook.)
Hanke spun Niantic Labs into an internal start-up at Google, which is mildly intriguing but still not all that surprising. Google has,of course, had hit products besides its biggest, which is still AdWords, but it was interesting to discover that Hanke’s Keyhole Inc. received investment capital from In-Q-Tel, which is the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Magic Leap was taken down a peg or two at the end of 2016. With a lot of promises and some ultra-bizarre hype moves, it seems that the subscription-based publication The Information, which was founded by Wall Street Journal writer Jessica Lessin, received full access to Magic Leap’s inside world, and reported that the company used visual hype in its video advertisements, which were (as some expected) composite videos made by a special effects company.
One of the best AR experiences I experienced in 2016 was the DAQRI Smart Helmet demonstration at Autodesk University 2016 in November. At its exhibition, the team told me that it is working to secure ANSI certification for the device, and the demonstration for hands-free access to schematic data was a smooth, practical and non obtrusive experience.
But hands down, the most practical application for AR that I reported on this year came from a Boston-based start-up called AMA XpertEye. The young company is creating applications from AR devices that run from Android OS. AMA XpertEye has created software for devices manufactured by different companies such as Epson, Vuzix, Osterhaut Design Group (ODG) and Google.
But one AR engineering application that the company built for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority(MBTA) really stood out. AMA XpertEye customized ODG R-7 Smartglasses for Keolis Commuter Services (KCS), which issues them to MBTA field mechanics. The field mechanics now use the R-7 Smartglasses as a hands-free visual augmentation to solve bottlenecks in a reoccurring workflow.
Field mechanics for the MBTA often go out on routine maintenance jobs to address maintenance issues. This was not a problem in this reoccurring workflow. The problem was that field mechanics would invariably run into other issues that needed urgent attention while they were out on different jobs, and they would regularly need guidance from experts who were stationed back at a central maintenance station.
What AMA XpertEye’s software does is that it allows field mechanics wearing the ODG R-7 Smartglasses to augment their vision by streaming a remote video connection to expert technicians in the central maintenance station. The field mechanic's Smartglasses are tethered to their smartphones, and the expert technicians link up remotely by their laptops.
During the video communication, either party can take snapshots of the video, annotate them with written messages or instructions, and send them back and forth to each other. The video can be saved and repurposed as a training video for a specific maintenance job or function.
This application does two things extremely well: it allows the company to save time geographically and in training by allowing users to amass a library of maintenance videos that they can pick and choose from to send to field mechanics. This way, if an analogous or exactly similar issue arises both repeatedly or just once, the field mechanic can keep their hands free and continue working both without interruption and with expert guidance using an issue-specific maintenance library.
2016 had a lot of interesting entries and took some big steps, but this is a new year. In the realm of AR, CES 2017 is underway and ODG marked the occasion by announcing the launch of the successors to the R-7 Smartglasses, the R-8 and R-9 Smartglasses.
Osterhaut Design Group Releases R-8 and R-9 Smartglasses at CES 2017
ODG’s R-8 and R-9 Smartglasses use Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 835 processor and accompanying VR SDK, which takes advantage of visual inertial odometry-based six degrees of freedom (6DoF) motion tracking.
The R-8 and R-9 Smartglasses support PTC’s Vuforia, an AR developer platform for developers. Vuforia allows programmers to place 3D content in physical reality-based environments and optimizes motion-to-photon latency, which is the exact time it takes for a user’s movement to display on screen. It’s the software engineers who can measure the alignment of digital data with physical data.
It’s not the hardware but ODG’s Reticle OS Android open standard platform that allows flexible developers to write applications for ODG R-7, R-8 and R-9 Smartglasses, as well as port existing ones to ODG devices.
So far, there is little information available about the R-8 and R-9 specs. The R-8 Smartglasses weigh a little under 4.5 ounces and offer a 40-degree field of view (FOV) on a private high-resolution screen. The screen hangs out and floats with you, no matter how you move.
The R-9 is designed with the company’s 50-degree FOV and 1080p Project Horizon platform, but it’s unclear how the experiences stack up against Microsoft HoloLens, a more popular AR headset.
Demos You Can See from ODG at CES 2017
- A collaboration with 21st Century Fox; experience a smartphone on an ODG device by transferring activities from a smartphone to a wearable device, including things like watching videos, reading, playing games and so on
- Content from 20th Century Fox, including a library of National Geographic content and other television programming
- An Alien AR demo that visitors can check out on ODG devices
- A presentation on OTOY’s Octane
- Other Vuforia-based demos, including a racing game that apparently combines augmented, virtual and mixed reality and an augmented football game
The specs for the ODG R-8 and R-9 Smartglasses have not been released, but take a look at the specs for the ODG R-7 Smartglasses above. Product design and engineering teams have a lot of interesting parameters and decisions to make for wearable AR like the ODG R-7. (Image courtesy of Osterhaut Design Group.)
Besides consuming or developing media and entertainment products for ODG devices like its R-series of Smartglasses, the potential for more engineering applications like the one AMA XpertEye developed is enormous.
The R-series of wearable devices is useful if you’re thinking of creating an inexpensive development platform for sophisticated mobile AR/VR and smartglasses applications. In other words, if you are thinking about creating an AR start-up, this R-series should probably be bookmarked for one reason or another.
Although the company considers the R-8 and R-9 Smartglasses to be consumer-level AR, the R-9 Smartglasses are an expensive $1,799,and will begin shipping in the second quarter of 2017. The R-8 Smartglasses will cost developers less than $1,000 sometime in the second half of 2017.
ODG has just received a $58 million Series A round—a huge amount for a wearables start-up, and it will be interesting to see if anymore engineering applications like the one Boston start-up AMA XpertEye built for field mechanics of the MBTA popup this year.
For now, it appears that developing custom applications for clients with issues as specific as those of the MBTA mechanics will bring all sorts of challenges to developers. And if developers want to serve diverse fields and areas in need of AR applications that they are unfamiliar with, then they’ll probably need to hire AEC and MFG consultants.