Google-owned Motorola Mobility's acquisition of Viewdle this week, a jump in the number of visitors to the insideAR conference and Nokia's recent launch of the City Lens application all illustrate growing interest in augmented reality.
After augmented reality became over-hyped about two years ago, interest waned a bit, but recently the idea seems to have gathered traction again. Google's Project Glass, a head-mounted display that started to be tested earlier this year, gave the concept a big boost, according to Martin Herdina, CEO at augmented reality vendor Wikitude.
Augmented reality allows computer-generated content to be superimposed over a live camera view of the real world.
"What we are seeing this year is that many big brands have started to invest. The change compared to two years ago is that augmented reality isn't just a technology demo, but what is launched has a use case," Herdina said.
The implementation of the technology has also become more stable, according to Herdina.
Beyond confirming the deal, Motorola isn't commenting on how it plans to use Viewdle's computer vision technology -- one of the cornerstones of current augmented reality systems -- which can be used for face, object, and gesture recognition. But the deal shows that there is a growing interest in augmented reality, according to Daniel Gelder, vice president of marketing at augmented reality vendor Metaio, who believes that all smartphones will come with augmented reality in two years.
The growing interest was further underlined at Metaio's insideAR conference, which took place this week in Munich. The event attracted approximately 500 participants, which was twice as many as last year, Gelder said.
Speakers at the conference included Lego and IKEA. The latter has become a poster child for the use of augmented reality. Its 2013 furniture catalog comes with additional content accessible using an augment reality app, which was developed using Metaio's SDK.
Though augmented reality has been around for a long time, it's still very much a nascent market.
Chipset makers have and will continue to play an important in the evolution of the sector, as their products become increasingly optimized to help improve augmented reality performance and smartphone battery life when using it, according to Gelder.
"Technically, the best way to do [augmented reality] is to get it as close to the silicon as possible, so that you don't have to do everything at the app level, because it is hard work that uses a lot of battery and horse power," said Martin Garner, an analyst at CCS Insight.
If Google is getting credit for giving the augmented-reality field a PR boost, Qualcomm should get credit for helping to build it by investing is companies like Viewdle and the development of its Vuforia SDK. The company also offers FastCV (Computer Vision), a product that allows developers to access hardware-accelerated functionality on Snapdragon processors to improve performance.
Just like other vendors, Qualcomm is seeing adoption of augmented reality accelerating.
"Multiple Vuforia-based applications have passed the one million download mark, and that is really significant," said Jay Wright, who is responsible for developing and driving Qualcomm's augmented reality commercialization strategy.
More than 1,800 commercial applications for Android and iOS have been built using Vuforia, a software development platform that allows developers to build augmented reality apps. The bulk of those apps are being used by large consumer brands that are using Vuforia functionality to complement physical products and advertising, according to Wright.
For example, Vuforia apps can allow consumers to view paper advertisements through smartphones, which then display additional content superimposed on the ads.
"What is driving this is when it comes to mobile, traditional display advertising is certainly not working like it did on the desktop," Wright said. "So brands are realizing the way to engage with consumers is through apps, and they want to do everything they can to make those apps more compelling."
Today, users experience augmented reality by downloading a mix of different apps. But that may change if vendors integrate augmented reality functionality into their smartphone OSes, according to Wright.
"I think that's possible -- the operating system providers also do some of their own first-party applications. Google and Apple certainly do that, and I think its foreseeable that one of them or someone else like Microsoft adds an augmented reality app and/or APIs to the OS," Wright said.
Nokia is taking a step in that direction by preinstalling the City Lens augmented reality application on its upcoming Windows Phone 8-based smartphones, Lumia 820 and Lumia 920. It is already available for existing phones.
Wright sees Nokia's City Lens launch as a validation of the augmented reality market.
But when OS vendors themselves incorporate augmented reality functions into OSes, third-party developers will become even more confident when writing apps, Garner said.
Herdina and Gelder both think that more large vendors will start getting interested.
"I truly believe this is just the starting point, and the easiest way for corporations to enter this field is through acquisitions," said Gelder.
Herdina is a bit more careful: "I think Motorola is very early in this respect. So I don't think there will be a huge acquisition trend this year. The large companies are still waiting and watching," he said.
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