Very rarely does an early technology garner such an air of inevitability like AR has in the past few years.
2018 was supposed to be a year where the foundational tech for augmented reality was built out a bit and the industry took a couple big leaps. Things started off well-enough, but momentum really doesn’t seem be on the side of some of the industry’s heaviest hitters heading into 2019, suggesting that life for earlier-stage startups may not be much easier.
There are plenty of reasons to be long-term bullish on AR, but the time horizons some have espoused seems to be bogus and pitch decks organized around a near-term spike in phone-based or glasses-based users are going to have a tougher time being taken seriously in 2019.
The ghost with the most
For all of the AR advances made this year, the company most emblematic of AR’s numerous challenges was clearly Magic Leap .
The company spent the past few years trashing industry standards and lauding their own approaches with braggadocio, but ended up releasing a product that largely iterated on its competitors. With the release of their “developer kit” this year, a product that clearly seems to have stopped being a first-gen product only when the reality of the climate availed itself, the startup seems to be finding that optics and infra progress is going to come more slowly than foretold.
I’ve talked to more than a few people who think Magic Leap hindered progress in the AR industry by siphoning investor attention and discouraging other hardware startups from joining the fray in the face of a billions-backed unknown. But in 2019, there are fewer available plays for the funding juggernaut. They spent years trying to distinguish themselves from the corporate mission of Microsoft and their HoloLens headset; now it seems they’ve begun to see that the only hope of justifying their sitting valuation in the next few years is enlisting support from the big customers that MSFT is chasing, as opposed to single-handedly birthing a consumer market. Magic Leap recently lost a bid to Microsoft for a $480 million military contract to outfit troops with AR headsets, and as Microsoft prepares to release a second-generation HoloLens with the enterprise in full concentration, it seems like Magic Leap is going to reshuffle its deck.
Dead-on-arrival content plays
Magic Leap’s struggles are well-documented, but what plagues the overall AR industry seems less discussed.
The consumer appetite for phone-based AR content is obviously lacking. Even Apple’s reality distortion field isn’t enough to convince people that its ARKit releases have led to anything other than some weird experimentation for iOS users. Few Android OEMs are boasting about compatibility with Google’s ARCore platform anymore, suggesting that approachable hardware standards for device makers wasn’t all that was missing from the failed Tango brand.
The most apparent mobile AR opportunities are probably in user-generated content, but there seems to be a disconnect between platforms and users in terms of how complex these AR experiences can and should become. At this point, selfie masks still seem to be at the edge of users’ comfort levels, leaving a lot of solved tech problems stuck in limbo waiting for a problem that makes them worthwhile.
Niantic is probably one of the most revenue-heavy startups dabbling in phone AR, even if it is a bit of a false idol for the industry. Nobody seems to think of Niantic as a capital-A augmented reality startup, but it’s clear that the team behind Pokémon GO sees the technology as a not-fully-tapped reservoir of potential for future gaming experiences that feel more social and more immersive than any mobile RPG that’s sucking up the majority of your playtime today. The company’s new Harry Potter title still doesn’t have a release date, we haven’t seen any gameplay, but we do know that AR plays a part in the title in some capacity. We’ll see if they figure out things the rest of the industry hasn’t.
Platform tech opportunities
Part of this broader content pain is the fact that some known platform fundamentals are still getting tackled. In 2018, the startups in AR that were raising the most buzz were so-called “AR cloud” startups, teams that were largely focused on solving more fundamental back-end problems around localization and mapping. It turns out “simple” problems like getting a bunch of users in a single session or keeping track of objects you’ve moved around between sessions are actually incredibly complex.
A big issue is that AR fundamentally relies on a level of spatial understanding that goes far beyond grasping geometry. For all the ground that has been traversed by computer vision researchers this year, issues like segmenting environments by objects and accurately identifying them are still in the earliest stages. When you think of AR tech as a subset of vision problems, you realize that products today are being approached in a kind of bizarre manner.
Google has been making worthwhile movements in proliferating their Lens computer vision engine across new apps and devices. In a very roundabout way, the company seems to have come to the worthwhile perspective that mapping an environment spatially doesn’t really help that much if you can’t parse the contextual nuances of what the camera is actually looking at, as well.
A lot of the AR startups in this space have raised some cash on the backs of the smartphone AR trend and the hundreds of millions of potential users, but it still seems pretty dubious whether this market has legs. Fortunately, most of these solutions have wide applicability across future industries like robotics and autonomous vehicles, helping computers interface with the real world through visual and geographic cues, but their utility might not be as ripe as they’d hope.
This is an area where Magic Leap could be poised to find some relatively near-term success. The startup’s top brass spent a hefty amount of time at their developer conference talking about the “Magicverse,” basically their vision for bringing localized AR layers onto geographic spaces where users with Magic Leap glasses could observe the content. Without having taken a peek at the tech they’re working with, their biggest advantage seems to rely on their partnership with AT&T, which is poised to start working more seriously with 5G in 2019.
The back end still remains a much more exciting market than hardware in 2019, but there may still be some interesting movement with devices this year. I don’t trust most of the predictive data that exists surrounding headset sales, so I’m not even going to reference it; suffice to say that AR headset sales aren’t going to explode anytime soon.
More conservative AR hardware
One trend that I am curious to see shake out is the more simplistic version of AR where the glasses basically just offer users a heads-up display for notifications and lightweight apps.
Companies like North and Vuzix have been talking a lot about their work here. Apple’s rumored AR glasses have been talked about for ages at this point, with 2020/2021 seeming to be the rumor mill sweet spot for a release time frame. If that’s the case, I’d bet it falls more into this design ethos than a HoloLens type device. The hardware just isn’t small enough yet, but it is getting close, and there could be some interesting early ground that the industry could gain by moving in more heavily on traditional wearable use cases — though high component costs will be an early limiter as well.
This is probably a hardware space Snap has their eyes on; Spectacles jogged a lot of the current thinking on glasses-type wearables, but at this point, the company needs something that has wide appeal and can feed users back into its own app. The company isn’t in a position to hock something with razor-thin or non-existent margins, and it doesn’t gain that much from a product that sells a few thousand units in terms of building its platform.
For the Facebooks and Apples of the world, immediate market conditions and user interest obviously hold a different weight. U.S. investment firms with good track records spent a lot of time this year rejiggering their expectations for their first waves of investments. For the more ambitious privately held AR startups of the world, there’s probably going to be an issue with raising capital this year, as a lot of the top hardware companies have been seeking more free-flowing late-stage cash from Chinese firms, which have been growing harder to pin down as the trade climate worsens. This is going to be a problem for hardware companies especially.
For the most part, the BS is going to continue to get easier to parse this year.
Platform plays are going to have to dial in their target audience a bit more than “everyone with an AR-enabled phone”; more realistic expectations are something the industry should benefit from. ARKit and ARCore are going to level-up and game engine-makers are going to get better solutions for AR content creators. Back-end vision challenges are going to get solved and enable things like more seamless multi-player, but there are plenty of reasons why these tech problem solutions won’t lead to big changes in user behavior. Users failing to take off in the second year of some of these big platforms probably won’t dissuade Apple, but it definitely will dissuade some investors from continuing to bet big on the near-term future of mobile AR.
Apple M1 Mac running Windows 10 ARM is embarrassing for Surface Pro X
It seems that Apple’s M1 Silicon isn’t yet done amazing people, even those from outside of Apple’s circles. The processor’s benchmarks have already been covered to death but nothing is probably more impressive than the M1’s performance outside of the common and officially supported use cases. Running Windows games via CrossOver, for example, is already quite a feat but running Windows itself on top of macOS Big Sur, just like what one developer accomplished, is even more dumbfounding. Especially when it clocks better than Windows 10 ARM’s “reference” Microsoft device.
Apple has removed the Boot Camp from macOS Big Sur on M1 Macs but not because Windows doesn’t run on ARM-based hardware. Apple is putting the ball in Microsoft’s court, explaining that it’s up to the Windows creator to make that happen by changing Windows 10 ARM’s licensing and making installers available. That said, it is technically possible to still run Windows on M1 Macs as developer Alexander Graf proved.
To be clear, he didn’t use the x86 version of Windows 10 as that would have added a layer of complexity to be emulated on an ARM-based Mac. Instead, he took an Insider Preview of Windows 10 ARM and ran it through a modified version of QEMU, a popular open source virtualization and machine emulation software, and utilizing Apple’s own Hypervisor.framework designed exactly for virtualization purposes.
According to Graf, the performance of this layer cake was quite snappy, though other testers who tried to replicate the setup did point out some issues. More interesting, however, The 8-bit reports the Geekbench scores for this Window ARM on ARM Mac outdid Windows ARM running on Microsoft’s own Surface Pro X.
That said, the current setup is hardly ideal and M1 Mac owners who need to run Windows software might want to wait for something like CodeWeavers’ CrossOver instead. It might also be a while before a full version of Windows will be able to run officially on these new Macs, via dual boot or virtualization, but this latest experiment still showcases the first Apple Silicon’s prowess.
US Army explores drone-like designs for quieter stealth helicopters
The US Army is has prioritized the development of a quieter helicopter design that will enable it to operate these vehicles for surveillance and cargo transportation without the noise of traditional helicopters. The military has zeroed in on eVTOL tech as its potential solution, meaning future Army helicopters may resemble drones.
Helicopters are vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles, meaning they rise straight up into the air and descend back down in the same way. This design is also used for consumer and many commercial drones, though there’s a very big, obvious difference: the rotors.
Whereas helicopters have a very large rotor that produces a loud noise, drones have multiple small rotors that reduce the noise level. The US Army is eyeing this type of design for future helicopters, ones that may feature an electric VTOL platform with multiple smaller rotors.
The result, the Army notes in its press release, will possibly be a different sound than we’re used to hearing from helicopters. A study was used to confirm that eVTOL will produce different noise, noting that stacked rotors may decrease noise and increase performance compared to traditional rotors with blades along a single plane.
Army research engineer Dr. George Jacobellis explained:
I do think that a stacked rotor can be beneficial for eVTOL applications. The added degree of freedom for the design will allow for gains in efficiency and control over the acoustic signature, which has been shown in the results. More investigation is needed, however, to quantify the noise reduction with axial spacing.
Upcoming phones geared to rattle the entry-level market
Smartphones have become an integral part of our life – no doubt they sell like hotcakes and virtually every other week a new phone is released in the market. While smartphones can be crazy pricey on one end of the spectrum, the options for entry-level buyers are also quite broad. The segment is important for all major manufacturers and the prospects of gaining the trust of buyers who want the bare basics from their device are quite high.
While there have been quite a number of entry-level phones up till now, there are more incoming soon. If you are someone looking for a good package smartphone that’s not obsolete while having the promise of getting through all the usual tasks – consider these upcoming smartphones.
Samsung Galaxy A02s
Samsung has a strong foot in the mid-range and entry-level phone market – knowing what the users actually demand. The South Korean giant is going to bring the phone (along with Galaxy A12) at a price of around $180, which will be a lucrative deal for buyers. Galaxy A02s will sport a 6.5-inch HD+ TFT Infinity V screen with a notched 5MP (f/2.2) front-facing camera. It is going to be powered by the octa-core Snapdragon 450 processor, have 3GB of RAM and 32GB of expandable storage.
The camera setup is also going to be respectable on the rear. The Galaxy A02s will have a triple camera module. It will have a 13MP primary shooter with autofocus, 2MP macro lens, and a 2MP depth sensor – both having f/2.4 value. 3.5mm jack will be on the phone for old school users and the impressive 5,000mAh battery (with 15W charging) will keep the phone juiced for longer durations.
Overall the Samsung’s upcoming entry-level phone in black and white color options is a sweet deal given the price tag and feature combo. Coming from a reliable brand this should be on your list come early 2021, as Galaxy 02s is rumored for a February 2021 release.
OnePlus has made a paradigm shift in its ideology for creating smartphones owing to the dynamic landscape. They evolved as a passionate OEM providing users with the best hardware and software experience; then to foray into the flagship segment and now diversifying into the entry-level market too. The upcoming OnePlus Clover is going to fill the void in the market for a good quality phone with smooth software experience.
The smartphone is slated for a 10 December 2020 release for a rumored price tag of $200, just in time for the buying spree. The device has a 6.52-inch IPS LCD display (1560×720 resolution with 264 ppi density) and will be powered by the 11nm manufacturing process based Snapdragon 460 octa-core chipset. To ensure all the basic processes run smoothly, Clover has 4GB RAM and 64GB internal memory.
On the rear, it will have a triple camera setup including a 13MP primary sensor (f/2.2), 2MP macro lens (f/2.4) and 2MP depth sensor (f/2.4). Clover will come with a massive 6,000mAh battery paired with an 18W charger brick. Overall an impressive entry-level Android 10 phone (upgradable to Android 11) given the superior OxygenOS UI.
After much ado, the Moto e7 was finally announced a couple of days ago and will come to the Latin American market in the next few weeks. US availability is also expected since the e6 was also released for the market, so you can keep an eye on this one. The budget-friendly phone is the best price of the lot with features good enough for a basic user. Android 10 powered Moto e7 carries a price tag of €112 ($135) and obviously you don’t expect top-notch hardware here, but enough to do the normal phone tasks.
The 6.5-inch HD+ (@269ppi) display phone is powered by the MediaTek Helio G25 chipset, has 2GB of RAM and 32GB/ 64GB storage option. 4,000mAh battery (paired to a 10W charger) is going to last a long time given the low-end hardware it has to feed. The dual-camera rear module of the phone comprises 48MP sensor (f/1.7) and a 2MP (f/2.4) macro sensor. On the front there is a 5MP (f/2.2) sensor for selfies, so you’ll have much liberty to click the occasional photographs.
Another smartphone that’s slated for a December 2020 release, and good enough for the budget buyer’s radar is the Nokia 6.3. The phone has an impressive specifications list for a buyer who can go to the stretchable price tag of $250. The phone comes with a 6.2-inch IPS LCD, Full HD+ (403ppi) resolution PureDisplay screen with a notch for an impressive 16MP selfie camera. The rear camera setup (imaging system with ZEISS Optics) is also the best in the lot here – a 24MP primary lens along with the 12MP wide-angle shooter and two 2MP macro and depth sensors.
The Android 10 powered Nokia 6.3 will have a 3GB RAM and 32GB storage option, and most probably the Snapdragon 630 or the Snapdragon 670/675 processor. The battery life is good at 4,000mAh and the user gets the convenience of a power button mounted fingerprint sensor. The speculations regarding some of the specifications should be taken with a grain of salt, however, most of them will be more or less the same. The phone is expected to release next month or by the start of next year. Keep an eye on this entry-level Nokia device for subsistence at a nominal price.
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