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In Search of Superpowers: Thoughts on AWE 2016

Earlier in June I attended Augmented World Expo (AWE) in Santa Clara—a gathering of people and companies working in augmented reality, virtual reality and wearables. The theme of this year’s event was “Superpowers to the People!”—reflecting a fantastic optimism about the nature of our cyborg future (all good!) as well as fundamental belief that this vision reflects a shared manifest destiny. Ambition, hubris, and exclamation points were not in short supply.

This is what I learned. The future is nearly here, and you will be assimilated. Glasses! We will wear glasses. You will hack your nervous system to experience good vibes. You will “touch” holograms. Or maybe use your brain! You will work, play, and shop in mixed reality, as has been foretold. You may use an AR headset to help you repair complex machinery, diagnose patients, design buildings, or learn to weld. Your shirt will be a sensor. You might wear the user interface—or a mechanized cocktail dress. You might even try to evade death by supporting the transhumanist party, eventually ceding government authority to a benevolent descendent of Optimus Prime (I’m not making this up).

Oh pioneers! This is the year of virtual reality, characterized by amazing new hardware across a spectrum of devices, yet constrained by a limited range of meaningful experiences and content. Augmented/mixed reality is becoming more tangible, particularly in the enterprise context—but its promise and potential for the rest of us remains squarely on the horizon. Current hardware is clunky at best and the software remains nascent, meaning it will be a while before we witness a pervasive computing platform that will ultimately replace mobile and fuse our consciousness with the network. And wearables (sigh) have yet to realize a lasting impact following multiple seasons of hype and dashed expectations.

Notably—with the exception of HTC—all the major AR/VR players were absent from AWE. No Google, Microsoft, Oculus, or Magic Leap. No Sony or Samsung. No Apple. Clearly, there is much more going on than was displayed or publicly discussed, which means that any prediction about the future is incredibly premature. This reflects the state of the industry at the moment: fragmented by competing platforms, multiple technologies, complete secrecy, and a general lack of maturity comparable to the early days of mobile before smartphones and the app store. Following a familiar pattern, tech has become a winner-takes-all battle for what’s next. In AR/VR—where the stakes are incredibly high—there will undoubtedly be few big winners and many losers. The winners get the next computing paradigm; the losers will be watching from virtual sidelines. So, we will wait.

Meanwhile, Microsoft was busy. You can now check your email and calendar on the HoloLens, which is the sort of basic functionality that suggests Redmond may be ahead in the race for a viable mainstream offering. Last week, Microsoft also released a concept video illustrating how future mixed reality experiences might be connected across devices and platforms via Windows. The scenario is painfully sophomoric in its depiction of consulting, creative work and collaboration (the People!); however, positioning Windows as an open platform illustrates the strategic importance of software in a space characterized more by trenches than bridges. That seems like a winning strategy.

In terms of closed ecosystems, it’s clear that the factory floor or jobsite is a more likely place to find early adopters of mixed reality. Enterprise products dominated the show, with a range of offerings from EPSON, DAQRI and others on display. It makes sense that the market will be divided along these lines—between the big consumer platform plays on one hand and the closed ecosystem applications on the other. The latter will benefit from finite requirements, a captive user base, and modest expectations—allowing quicker time to market and ready adoption. Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine how pervasive and valuable AR/MR will become in industry, where contextual information is critical to performance, training, safety and efficiency—and where old-fashioned pragmatic usefulness outweighs passing novelty and exceptional design.

These are the brick-phone days of mixed reality. Collectively, the promise of these technologies remains great, while the specifics are unclear and the outcomes even more so. Many of the products lack a clear value proposition, which is exacerbated by a tendency to focus on superpowers (capability) while ignoring human needs and the larger context in which these new products and services need to function (meaning). This follows from the faster horses mentality still dominant in tech, and assumes that if you build it, they (the People!) will come. The result is an endless progression of solutions in search of problems. It’s also the reason that events like AWE and CES can come across as rather insular gadget-fests profoundly disconnected from real problems.

Amidst the hyperbole and ambiguity, I do believe we’re on the brink of a significant transformation in computing with profound implications for individuals, society and business. Superpowers may ultimately prove the wrong metaphor, whereas the spirit of augmenting human capability with technology in the service of preferable outcomes is a completely different mindset. We will need to design for mindfulness and not merely productivity. We will need to preserve a shared human experience, and define new business models to fuel this bold new world. This will require a more iterative, human-centered approach to innovation, a systems approach to products and services, and an openness to the broader ecosystem. Along the way, we need to reconnect the human narrative to the technological imperative—putting people in the center to ensure we get the future we want. The cape is optional.