Alex Chuang is the Managing Partner of Shape Immersive, a boutique studio that helps enterprise and brands transform their businesses by incorporating VR/AR solutions into their strategies.
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British science fiction writer, Sir Arther C. Clark, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Augmented reality has the potential to instill awe and wonder in us just as magic would. For the very first time in the history of computing, we now have the ability to blur the line between the physical world and the virtual world. AR promises to bring forth the dawn of a new creative economy, where digital media can be brought to life and given the ability to interact with the real world.
AR experiences can seem magical but what exactly is happening behind the curtain? To answer this, we must look at the three basic foundations of a camera-based AR system like our smartphone.
How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization + Mapping)
How do computers understand what the world looks like? (Geometry)
How do computers understand the world as we do? (Semantics)
Part 1: How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization)
Mars Rover Curiosity taking a selfie on Mars. Source: https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/msl/pia19808/looking-up-at-mars-rover-curiosity-in-buckskin-selfie/
When NASA scientists put the rover onto Mars, they needed a way for the robot to navigate itself on a different planet without the use of a global positioning system (GPS). They came up with a technique called Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO) to track the rover’s movement over time without GPS. This is the same technique that our smartphones use to track their spatial position and orientation.
A VIO system is made out of two parts.
China’s new rules on video games, introduced last month, are having an effect on the …
We’re still reeling a bit from today’s announcement of Vision Pro, Apple’s biggest new platform/hardware product rollout in years. The enormity of the entirely new computing interface the company is trying to sell here is matched only by the augmented reality headset’s significant $3,499 starting price.
Whether or not Apple’s gambit here can succeed in a headset-curious but still largely headset-skeptical market will depend in large part on the quality of the “immersive” experience Apple can deliver, and the answers to questions that can only be answered by actually putting this thing on our heads. Before we get that eyes- and hands-on time, though, here are some immediate thoughts on how to position Vision Pro in the market and in your mind.
Don’t judge Vision Pro by the standards of VR
Comparing the Vision Pro to the current state of the art in virtual reality makes its value proposition seems like a real uphill climb for Apple. After all, for the same price as just one Vision Pro you could buy three-and-a-half Quest Pro headsets (after its recent price drop to $999) or a full seven of Meta’s upcoming Quest 3 headsets (one for every day of the week).
But while the Vision Pro looks a bit like existing VR headsets, this is first and foremost an augmented reality device (i.e. one that projects images on top of your natural view of the “real world”). That puts it in the same category as Microsoft’s Hololens 2, which launched for developers at $3,500 in 2019, or the Magic Leap 2, which launched for $3,299 last year.
That difference matters for more than price competitiveness reasons. The use cases for a true augmented reality device go way beyond those for a dedicated virtual reality device (which fully blocks your view of the real world).
To see how, note that the software market for VR headsets is currently dominated by games and other interactive experiences that usually have you stand in an all-encompassing virtual environment. Apple’s presentation today, by contrast, barely mentioned gaming. Instead, it mainly showed Vision Pro users lounging on their couch and flicking through apps or movies, or sitting at a keyboard and working on massive virtual displays (not to mention getting up to grab a drink from the fridge without taking the headset off, something that is tough in VR even with quality passthrough cameras).
Those Vision Pro users were shown using casual gestures to wander through an iOS style environment, rather than using the kinds of big motions that characterize interactions in VR games. Vision Pro doesn’t even come with handheld controllers, which could make it difficult to port existing VR games that rely on those controllers.
Whether Apple’s device can live up to the vision presented by this carefully crafted presentation is an open question. But the different focus highlights just how different this AR headset could be from previous VR headsets—if they can get it right.
Sony’s chief executive has warned that cloud gaming is still technically “very tricky,” playing down the risk to the console maker of the industry quickly converting to a technology on which its rival Microsoft has bet heavily.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Kenichiro Yoshida said the PlayStation creator would still study “various options” in the future for streaming games over the Internet itself, adding it could utilize GT Sophy, its artificial intelligence agent, to enhance cloud gaming.
“I think cloud itself is an amazing business model, but when it comes to games, the technical difficulties are high,” said Yoshida, citing latency—the fast response times demanded by gamers—as the biggest issue. “So there will be challenges to cloud gaming, but we want to take on those challenges.”
Despite various attempts to remake the gaming industry around the cloud, many users have yet to switch from a console or high-end gaming PC to streaming games entirely over the Internet, fearing the lags that can be caused by slowing Internet connectivity and server speeds.
Publishers have also not been fully supportive. In January, Google shut down its Stadia streaming service after most game producers held back from making their top titles available on the platform.
The promise of cloud gaming is still unfulfilled after more than a decade of development. Sony was one of the first big companies to enter the market, having acquired cloud gaming company Gaikai for $380 million in 2012 and later the technologies of its rival, OnLive.
While it launched a cloud gaming subscription service in 2014 that is now integrated with its upgraded and expanded service PS Plus Premium, analysts say Sony has not capitalized on its early bet to establish itself as a leader in the field.
Yoshida also pointed to the costly inefficiencies of cloud gaming where servers are idle for much of the day before having to cope with the high levels of traffic of gamers playing during the evening or “dark time.” He added that Sony had responded by unleashing GT Sophy in the quiet hours to learn how to beat human competitors in the auto-racing simulator Gran Turismo.
“The dark time for cloud gaming had been an issue for Microsoft as well as Google, but it was meaningful that we were able to use those [quieter] hours for AI learning,” said Yoshida, speaking at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo.
He declined to comment on the impact Sony foresees from Microsoft’s $75 billion agreed purchase of the publisher Activision, the company behind the Call of Duty and World of Warcraft game franchises, saying regulatory reviews were continuing.
But the deal has rattled the global gaming industry, where the US software company is engaged in a cut-throat battle with Sony for dominance of console gaming.
Industry and regulatory concerns have focused on whether Microsoft would make Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud gaming service, a move that could potentially accelerate the shift away from consoles.
Last month, the UK competition regulator blocked the acquisition, concluding that the takeover would cement Microsoft’s dominance of the nascent cloud gaming market. According to Microsoft, its Xbox Cloud Gaming service has more than 20 million users.
The regulatory response has been mixed, however, with EU regulators clearing the purchase on the basis that Microsoft had made concessions to alleviate its concerns.
If it goes through, the deal would make Microsoft the third-biggest gaming company by revenue, behind China’s Tencent and Sony.
After a lot of hype from game makers in 2021, big publishers have been relatively quiet on the idea of integrating non-fungible tokens into their games since the collapse of Ubisoft’s “Quartz Digits” platform last year. But EA Sports this week is proving the game industry hasn’t completely abandoned the blockchain-based collectible technology, announcing a partnership with Nike’s “.Swoosh” NFT platform to let players “express their personal style through play.”
Details are still scarce, and Nike says that more information will be available “in the coming months.” But the company said in a statement that “select .Swoosh virtual creations” will “unlock brand new levels of customization within the EA SPORTS ecosystem” and provide players with “unique new opportunities for self-expression and creativity through sport and style.”
In other words, it sounds like you’ll soon be able to put your NFT Nike sneakers on your Madden team.
Why this time could be different
As skeptical as we’ve been about previous efforts to integrate NFTs into games, this partnership could avoid some of the field’s most common pitfalls. For one, Nike is already an established brand with legions of sneakerheads that follow its every move. And those fans have already shown at least some willingness to invest in digital swag bearing Nike’s iconic swoosh. The company’s first “Virtual Sneaker Drop”—featuring “digital renditions” of the company’s iconic Air Force 1 line—reached over $1 million in sales to early beta users in less than a week, according to CoinDesk.
Those NFTs might become even more valuable to Nike fans if and when they can be used to unlock digital drip in EA Sports titles. And these kinds of “real-world clothing” cosmetics also seem like items that could be relatively easy for other developers and publishers to integrate into their own games (unlike Ubisoft’s awkward, serial-numbered virtual items). That means other publishers could theoretically follow EA’s lead here, integrating support for Nike’s virtual fashions as a marketing tool targeting fashion-conscious gamers.
That could plausibly create a kind of cycle where support from more games leads to more interest in Nike’s NFTs, which in turn leads more game makers to sign on, and so on. If enough game makers start featuring those Nike collectibles, we could plausibly reach NFT bulls’ dream scenario of digital items that you buy once and use across multiple properties around the Internet.
Of course, for any of that to happen, Nike and EA will first have to get over the deep and longstanding animosity gamers have shown for any game developer that even hints at making NFTs part of its gaming plans (not to mention the wider collapse in NFT interest across multiple markets). And if the prospect of showing off Nike swag in online games can’t break through that inherent hostility, there’s a good chance nothing will.
Regardless, by leaning on Nike’s established brand—and letting it serve as a third party that markets and sells the NFTs themselves—EA Sports could avoid some of the problems other companies have faced in trying to build and sell NFT collections from scratch.