Augmented Reality Will Be the New Reality


There’s a consumer electronics boom just around the corner.

The industry recently made this point at Augmented World Expo 2013, a conference that showcased the technology that will extend your interaction with the real world in the near future.

Augmented reality enhances real-world experiences through devices and displays, giving consumers the chance to digitally interact with their environments. It has received a lot of attention lately, thanks to Google’s (GOOG) Project Glass and the fevered speculation that Apple (AAPL) will soon be getting into the game via a smartwatch or some other wearable device.

The Augmented World Expo was held in Santa Clara, Calif. — about 2,600 miles out of my way — so I wasn’t able to attend in person. However, I pored through the conference website, including award finalists in various categories, and came up with a few companies that I think might be worth watching in this space.

Intel (INTC) has been developing what it calls the Perceptual Computing SDK 2013 and is now partnering with hardware manufacturers to commercialize the technology. But what the heck is it? According to Intel: “close-range hand and finger tracking, speech recognition, face analysis and augmented reality.” The intent is to spur augmented reality applications on Intel-powered Ultrabooks and PCs. The PC market might be declining, but adding speech and gesture recognition could make the devices more compelling. There are security applications as well — facial and voice recognition could be the ultimate password replacement.

The company has released a commercial version of a camera using the SDK, and touted its PC gaming applications in a press release. Think tablet-like gestures without oily fingerprints smearing your display — something like a mini Microsoft (MSFT) Kinect for your computer.

We might think of Qualcomm (QCOM) as a manufacturer of wireless communications technology, but at AWE 2013, the company was nominated for the best augmented reality SDK. Qualcomm’s Vuforia is a software platform that supports both Android and iOS, used to identify objects when a smartphone or tablet is pointed at them, overlaying the image with detail for an augmented reality experience.

This is the sort of technology that makes books come to life, games more immersive and museum visits more interesting. (I wrote about one app where pointing a tablet at a dinosaur skeleton overlays the bones with animated flesh.)

It also has real commercial potential — making advertising more interactive — especially as more people carry and use camera-equipped smartphones. Qualcomm says Vuforia is already powering more than 4,000 commercial applications in 130 countries.

And yeah, there are plenty of augmented reality glasses out there besides Google Glass. There’s Epson’s $700 Android-powered 3D specs, which come with a wired controller pack to makes navigation much simpler than trying to interpret eye movement. There’s also the Oculus Rift — a highly anticipated virtual reality headset that’s making big waves in the video gaming world.

The very cool-looking Recon Jet heads-up display sunglasses from Recon Instruments were among the best hardware nominees at AWE 2013. These computerized, connected, high-resolution sunshades deliver some of the key functions of Google Glass, interact with other fitness gear and are expected to offer a consumer-friendly price tag in the $300-$400 range, compared to $1,500 for Project Glass.

Augmented reality seems new, but it has been a long and iterative process. In case you think Project Glass is a first, AWE 2013 included a “Retrospective Exhibition of Augmented Reality Eyewear,” spanning 35 years of head-mounted personal displays. However, we’re finally approaching the point where technology and connectivity have advanced enough to make something like Project Glass a commercially feasible product instead of a research lab demo.

Of course, augmented reality is also a lot more than glasses and wearable tech, it’s leveraging our smartphones, tablets and PCs to interact with our surroundings and ordinary objects.

There are two big prizes in the developing market. The first and most visible is the race to sell hardware. That’s where Google Glass, smart watches and other devices come into play.

The other is behind the scenes and has the potential to be more valuable over time. Companies like Qualcomm, in trying to establish standards and platforms for augmented reality, are aiming less for the glory of having their name on cool devices (that, let’s face it, tend to quickly become old news) and more for becoming the ones that power the augmented reality revolution. If they’re successful in this strategy, it could mean licensing deals that prove more valuable than designing, selling and marketing hardware.

Intel is using a variation on this approach. By providing the SDK that supports augmented reality on PCs, it’s providing the tools to expand the capabilities of its core market.

It’s entirely possible that just as touchscreen capability became a requirement for manufacturers to earn Intel’s Ultrabook designation, augmented reality capability might too.

As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

Brad Moon has been writing for since 2012. He also writes about stocks for Kiplinger and has been a senior contributor focusing on consumer technology for Forbes since 2015.

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