Gardens weren’t the only thing in bloom this past spring: So were immersive technologies. Four major platforms–Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook–all made big moves to establish technological leadership for virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR).
Content publishers and developers are now hard at work creating a new wave of immersive content based on these technology advances. That means the time is right for digital professionals to lean in and shape how immersive experiences can extend engagement, nurture influencers, and delight customers with new forms of brand interaction.
First a definition: Immersive reality is an all-inclusive term that includes:
- 360-degree video/photos: Images and videos with 360 degrees of freedom that can be viewed in a headset or on a smartphone.
- Computer-generated (CG) virtual reality: An artificial interactive environment that is displayed primarily through a dedicated headset or headset plus smartphone.
- AR: A virtual environment that is superimposed on the real world using a form of transparent glasses or the camera app on a smartphone.
Let’s catch up on what evolved this spring.
Immersive Platform Advances
Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple all held major events this year in which they delivered or revealed a road map for bringing more immersive capabilities to developers and content publishers. These players are vigorously working to vertically integrate a stack of immersive hardware and software that is functionally proprietary to each player. Early on, this isn’t bad: In the early days of any major disruptive technology, providing a proprietary offering creates consistency and stability, though it does limit reach since content is confined to a single platform.
• Facebook: At f8, Facebook focused primarily on AR and provided a set of simple visual design tools (AR Studio and Frame Studio) to encourage content development. Of course, Facebook continues to work on VR through its Oculus platform, but AR appeared to be the main thrust at this year’s event.
Facebook’s immersive platform is integrated with the Facebook Camera app, which is embedded in Facebook’s flagship mobile app as well as Messenger.
Facebook envisions a world where virtual objects are everywhere and can enhance social interaction.
Considerations: Facebook now has more than 2 billion monthly active users. Vertically integrated hardware owners, such as Google and Apple, could choose to incorporate features similar to Facebook Camera directly into their camera apps, which enjoy deeper relationships to their operating systems. Facebook has, essentially, signaled that immersive experiences through smartphones are just a waypoint and that it expects glasses to be mainstream by 2022. This would free Facebook from dependencies on other platforms if the company builds its own glasses.
• Google: Like Facebook, Google focused its I/O Conference on AR, which is being developed on a smartphone platform called Tango. At the moment, only a handful of Tango-enabled phones are in the pipeline, including the ASUS ZenPhone AR, which should be available at any moment now. But Google promises that more smartphone support is on the way for Tango for the upcoming holiday season.
For VR experiences, Google offers the Daydream platform, which is enabled by attaching a Daydream-capable smartphone to a headset.
Google’s Tango platform solves a big limitation for augmented reality: spatial awareness and location.
Considerations: Android hardware is highly fragmented–immersive experiences could be rolled out inconsistently across the platform, limiting adoption. Tango solves key location and spatial awareness issues that currently limit AR experiences on smartphones. Additionally, Google’s investment in MagicLeap might give it a huge jump on other platforms.
• Microsoft: Microsoft’s BUILD event did not offer any dramatically new developments in immersive technologies. However, the company did take the opportunity to showcase how different businesses are using Hololens’ AR platform. Japan Airlines, for example, is using Hololens for engine repair training, while Mod Pizza restaurants uses Hololens to design its stores.
Microsoft did give a nod to VR when it announced Windows Mixed Reality, a version of Windows for VR devices that will first be built by Acer and HP, but has the potential to be offered by other headset manufacturers.
Microsoft continues to develop its Hololens headset as its primary thrust into immersive experiences.
Considerations: Microsoft is betting primarily on its Hololens headset, while the other major platform players have bet on smartphones, for augmented experiences. Additionally, the company sees more immersive opportunity in the enterprise (e.g., engineering, life sciences, manufacturing, etc.). Keep in mind that Microsoft does not control a smartphone hardware platform, and it hasn’t invested much in 360-photo/video or computer-generated VR (CG VR). Rather, it has focused almost entirely on AR.
• Apple: Apple’s WWDC was full of immersive developments this year. Apple added capabilities for both virtual and augmented reality, but like the other major players, it placed more emphasis on AR that can be experienced through a smartphone.
ARKit and SceneKit, in particular, have the potential to be very compelling for creating captivating immersive content. Vive, Unity, Unreal, and Steam support on both OSX and iOS round out Apple’s moves for spring.
An example of placing a virtual object onto a real-world table using ARKit.
Considerations: Apple will have more than 500 million AR-ready devices this fall when iOS 11 ships. This is likely to be the biggest potential set of addressable AR-ready devices. However, Apple is relying primarily on third parties, such as Unity, Unreal, and HTC, to provide VR capabilities. So far, Apple’s AR tools are tuned for developers, but the company’s immersive support for creative professionals is unclear.
Let’s also not forget about major Chinese players, including Tencent, HTC, Baidu, and Alibaba. All are experimenting with immersive platforms that include hardware and software. Tencent and Alibaba most recently produced augmented reality apps for the Chinese New Year.
It’s too early to suggest that immersive is mainstream either among enterprises or consumers. Instead, 2017 is shaping up to be another year of experimentation.
If you’re a digital professional and haven’t yet thought about how you or your clients might benefit from incorporating immersive into your customer touch points (B2B or B2C), now would be a good time to at least run some scenarios. You might even want to run a pilot with a client that is leaning forward into this new technology.
For B2B practitioners, consider the following (non-exhaustive) examples:
And here are some examples for B2C professionals as well. Note that these examples are event-/installation-based given that device ubiquity for consuming immersive experiences is still very limited.
Although the immersive space has yet to catch on fire, it’s still on a path to be one of the most disruptive developments in technology, potentially rivaling the PC, mobile device, and cloud transition. I’ll be back this fall with an update on the latest developments and perspectives on this still emerging space.