The augmented reality boom will transform phones (and business)

With lasers, holograms and more, smartphone makers are scrambling to optimize devices. One use that's coming soon: augmented reality collaboration

iphone 8 augmented reality
Credit: Gabor Balogh

Augmented reality is frivolous, we're told. It's mainly for gimmicks and games.

But an important transformation is about to get under way. Starting next year, AR will begin transforming enterprise communications, logistics, manufacturing, analytics, product design, training, marketing, field service and more.

Today's phones and tablets aren't quite up to the task. But tomorrow's will be.

Even business meetings will change. With ubiquitous AR, multiple devices can see the same thing in the same space. Imagine tablet users sitting around a conference table. While looking at their screens, all meeting participants will see the same 3D graphs floating in space above the table, the same virtual prototype, the same globe or the same holographic talking head.

Instead of PowerPoint presentations taking place on a wall, the presented data will be 3D, holographic and displayed in AR in the middle of the room or table. Best of all, remote participants will also see the same images. (The buzzword for this is "augmented reality collaboration.")

The ultimate and eventual hardware platform for augmented reality will be glasses and goggles. But until technology advances enough to enable that broadly, AR will live on smartphones and tablets.

The industry is focusing on mobile devices because they're ubiquitous and have the basic necessary hardware ingredients for AR - connectivity, screens, cameras, processors, motion sensors and the ability to run apps.

Everybody will be surprised when the obvious and inevitable happens -- when the capabilities and performance of AR on phones and tablets becomes the reason to buy one brand of phone over another. You can bet that smartphone makers will then innovate with new hardware features to boost AR.

It's actually already happening. Silicon Valley is suddenly exploding with chatter about an industry-wide race to optimize smartphones for AR.

Here's what industry nerds are whispering about.

The iPhone laser

A single-source report from Fast Company says Apple is trying to build a rear-facing 3D laser system into the upcoming iPhone 8. It's also possible that the new component could be introduced in a later model.

The purpose of the system - which involves a laser beam generator, lens and chip - is to quickly and accurately measure distance, not only for faster auto-focus for the camera (especially helpful in low light), but also for better placement of virtual objects in physical space with AR apps. More exacting information about surfaces and objects allows virtual material to appear to interact more accurately with the real world. And it will greatly enhance utility - for example, to enable quick measurements in industrial settings.

This new hardware element is assumed to improve the accurate positioning of virtual objects inside apps built with Apple's ARKit over the current system, which is already very accurate.

The hologram phone

The camera company Red this month announced plans to release an Android smartphone in the first quarter of next year called Hydrogen One.

The company claims that the phone's screen, called a "hydrogen holographic display," will be able to show 3D holographic content without special glasses. Red founder James Jannard says the lens isn't lenticular, but uses "technology you haven't seen before" that uses "multi-view" or "4-view" display technology, instead of a 3D "2-view" approach.

It will also be modular, with attachments that enable, among other things, the shooting of "holographic images." It's all pretty cryptic and sounds unlikely - until you remember that Red has delivered in the past on unlikely promises with its cameras.

The phone will start at $1,195 unlocked, according to the company, and is currently available for pre-order.

The Surface phone and Huawei mystery

Thurrott Executive Editor Brad Sams said on a recent podcast that Microsoft is working on a Surface-branded Windows 10 device -- phone, tablet (or phablet) -- optimized for AR. He said that prototypes of the devices are already being passed around on the Microsoft campus.

The most telling and promising aspect of this rumor is that apparently the project is headed by HoloLens chief Alex Kipman. That would mean that as with the Hydrogen One, the Surface phone would be designed primarily for AR -- a bet by Microsoft that AR itself will be a primary application.

Meanwhile, leaks around Huawei's upcoming Mate 10 smartphone also hint vaguely at AR-specific hardware, but it's unknown exactly what those components are or how they boost AR.

How to understand the AR push

All these rumors and announcements suggest, if nothing else, that smartphone makers are scrambling to beat each other to market with compelling advantages in AR.

A casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that Google is way ahead on the AR hardware front. After all, its Tango system, which Google first announced three years ago, seems to be ahead of the pack. Two devices -- the Asustek ZenFone AR and the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro -- already support Tango. (The Tango system involves advanced hardware for rapidly mapping an indoor environment -- ideal for AR applications.)

The problem is that these phones represent an insignificant percentage of the Android market. As a result, Google's Tango-specific APIs are not widely used and Tango software is rare.

With Moore's Law bringing down the cost of Tango's expensive hardware, that may change eventually.

The best thing about Tango phones is that they provide a guidebook to the future of smartphones. Because of AR, smartphones will need special sensors and massive processing power.

Meanwhile, the biggest event ever to happen in the world of augmented reality is the announcement last month by Apple of its ARKit for building augmented reality apps for the upcoming iOS 11 platform. When the new iPhone and iPad software hits, developers will gain access to a billion theoretical users. AR on mobile devices will go mainstream fast, and smartphone buyers will start choosing phones based on AR capabilities (much like they now choose based on camera quality.

This prediction applies to enterprise employees in BYOD (bring-your-own-device) environments, too. Just as in-house apps and back-end systems developers can count on BYOD devices sporting camera electronics, they'll soon count on them to do advanced AR.

Today, most enterprise decision-makers assume AR applications will be served up on heads-up displays, special goggles and other futuristic hardware and that the AR is a challenge for the far-off future. It's time to adjust those assumptions.

With each passing day, it appears that enterprise AR will soon be deployed widely via smartphones and tablets, including BYOD electronics. This shift should and will affect buying decisions. AR favors phones and tablets, as well as rare laptop or hybrid devices with rear-facing cameras, such as the Microsoft Surface Book.

Also: It's important to remember that wherever Apple goes with components, so goes the industry. (Most consumer and enterprise electronics innovation in the last 10 years has been cobbled together out of the chips and sensors created, miniaturized, optimized and cheapened by the Apple-led drive to embrace multi-touch, all-screen smartphones starting in 2007.)

Dedicated AR hardware like Apple's rumored laser part means the electronics industry will scramble to produce them by the hundreds of millions. This and other categories of AR-specific components will drive the real future AR platform, which is smart glasses.

Let me rephrase that: Dedicated AR smartphone components will accelerate AR deployment because it's on smartphones, and will accelerate non-smartphone AR devices for future deployments.

The bottom line is that the arrival of AR is imminent and it will be made enterprise-ready with special-purpose hardware built into mainstream devices (making it compatible with BYOD policies). And the race to develop smartphone components will accelerate next-generation glasses and goggles.

AR will transform phones and phones will transform AR.

Most importantly: It's all going to happen faster than expected.

This story, "The augmented reality boom will transform phones (and business)" was originally published by Computerworld.

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