If you are just beginning to get interested in augmented reality (AR, Wikipedia definition) or potential applications thereof, it's still not too late to watch a revolution unfold. But miss the next wave of location-enabled technology and you'll miss out on both the money and the fun. Gartner "hype-cycle" be damned - AR may not fit its model, whereby emerging technologies promise too much and deliver too little after abundant publicity and media "hype" before finally realizing their potential with a viable mainstream product.
Why do I say this? Some history: In 1987, four students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York started a small company called MapInfo. The company and its products changed the landscape of GIS by launching products for the PC and successfully pushing mapping technology into the hands of thousands of users on both the DOS and then Windows platforms. GIS was never the same; desktop mapping was a "killer app." The industry grew exponentially because more people had the power of location technology at their fingertips.
Fast forward to 2009 when three young colleagues in The Netherlands, Claire Boonstra, Raimo van der Klein and Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, utilized their experience in mobile technology and launched Layar, one of the first companies offering location-enabled AR. Prior to Layar, they had founded SPRXmobile, a consultancy helping large firms understand the mobile technology industry. The team supported T-Mobile with the launch of the first Android phones in The Netherlands. In addition, they founded the Amsterdam chapter of Mobile Monday [MoMo] and were able to immediately attract key speakers to these events.
Layar's technology overlays location-based information onto a cell phone's camera view and users receive additional information about their surroundings. Whether you are trying to find the location of the nearest coffee shop or the history of the Berlin Wall (if you are standing in front of the Berlin Wall), different "layers" of information can pop up onto your cell phone screen. Based upon your location and juxtaposition to the place or thing at which you may be pointing your cell phone camera, small notes appear on the screen with current or historical information, again, depending on the layers that you download and purchase for your use. Think of going to Disney World and being unable to find Space Mountain even with the park map. You can buy a "layar."
Now expand your mind just a bit; don't limit AR's potential to tourist or simple retail "find me" applications. Think about business applications, as MapInfo did when it targeted marketing professionals with mapping to help them find more customers. I've written about the business applications of AR in "The Trivialization of Augmented Reality." The business potential here is enormous.
Yet, the hype today is all about tourist applications, and for good reason. It's fun stuff. Layar appears to be aware of the publicity, much of which it helped to foster. The prognostications of the market researchers currently put AR at the top of the hype cycle, which should be followed by a ride down the wave into the "trough of disillusionment," a place where the excitement about emerging technologies goes to die.
I was fortunate enough to be in Amsterdam to talk with Claire Boonstra, co-founder of Layar (photo below), about the challenges that lay ahead for a company faced with both the potential for much success and the danger of being swept "inside the tornado" or "falling into the chasm" as Geoffrey Moore's tenets have suggested about other emerging technologies. Below is my interview with Boonstra. I hope you find the interview useful in helping you evaluate the potential of AR and in fostering an understanding of the next wave of "killer apps" that may follow in the coming years.
Joe Francica (JF): How did Layar get started and what brought you to augmented reality?
Claire Boonstra (CB): Maarten, Raimo and I got to know each while setting up something for mobile; we wanted to create the mobile space in The Netherlands at a higher level and basically founded the Amsterdam chapter of Mobile Monday. We set up the Amsterdam chapter in our spare time next to our day jobs. Within a few months the Amsterdam chapter was by far the biggest chapter globally.
JF: Tell me more about your experiences in mobile technology prior to starting Layar.
CB: We decided to do something with the energy that we had [with Mobile Monday]... and create our own company, called SPRXmobile, because that's apparently what we did... a mobile consultancy company helping big companies move ahead in mobile and be successful in mobile. So, the project ranged from setting up the mobile applications behind the Olympics for the Dutch broadcasters... mobile strategies for the biggest banks in The Netherlands, etc.
JF: So, this really had nothing to do with AR just yet?
CB: But already, individually before we even got to know each other, Maarten had been reading science fiction books for years and had already been reading about AR... Raimo has been in mobile since the end of the ‘90s and each of us individually had already seen AR as the next step in mobile... Wikitude was one of the first in the market so we said "Wikitude, can we do something with you?" with the commercial uses of our platform [using SPRXmobile's technology] ... because they only had a Wikipedia implementation... We also got five Dutch customers to want a layer on our browser and they paid some money to have it developed... ING, ICE (Hyves, the Dutch Facebook), a temp agency (Tempo Team), Funda (houses for sale) and a healthcare company [Univé].
So, on the day after we launched [Layar] and had the video "live," we were featured on all the blogs we read ourselves... and we were being called by companies, news agencies, developers, creative people, saying, "We wanted a layer, too." So, within a few days, we figured out we could not remain a layer creation agency; we had to open up where everybody could create their own. So, that's when we decided to make a platform out of it.
JF: So the platform was really an API?
CB: Technically speaking [the platform] is actually a reverse API because you ask our platform to talk with your database. So, you have to program a connection between the database and the platform. So, we don't host the content... we just facilitate so that everybody can create their own experiences. But what we do is that we don't only have good tools but we make sure that it is platform independent or that it's accessible on the iPhone and Android. We have a big market reach and Layar is being pre-installed on most of the new Android phones that are reaching the market.
We have other payment platforms. We have a full independent bank platform, so as a content owner you can choose to have a layer for free or for pay and a customer from whatever country can just purchase a layer in their own currency. Right now it's just PayPal; later on it will be on different payment systems.
JF: Are you managing all that content?
CB: We don't... we only give an "OK" for that layer to be published. That's a technical check where the layer is actually functioning. There's no censorship unless it's against all rules of social manners or against the law.
JF: So it's kind of like an "app store"?
JF: What is AR to Layar?
CB: For us, real augmented reality is about a 3D reality immersive experience where you need this to see a piece of art or to experience the Berlin Wall, in Berlin... you can't display that on a map. Playing a game on a map is not the same game... That, for us, is real AR and once we explain it, people go away and call me later say, "Whoa, I have so many ideas." We are, of course, way ahead of our users and customers because we have been thinking about this for so long, so we have to take people in our own growth path. A year ago when we launched we were still talking about AR as a "where is" [application].
JF: So you see both the promise and potential of growing that idea?
CB: Yes, but the funny thing is everybody gets it! Everybody can slowly see examples about how it would fit their life or how it would be useful to them. And there are, theoretically, as many layers possible as there are currently websites on the Internet. And you can add your own layer to your reality.
JF: Let me ask you about the form factor, for example, the iPhone versus the iPad. Has it helped you?
CB: Yes and no. I think the tablets will provide better experiences for use cases where you really want to dive into the experience. For example, an art tour in the open air because... you don't mind holding up a big device and you have a more immersive experience. But holding a big device, you know, you don't carry it around in your pocket. And a mobile phone... you always have it with you. So, there are just different use cases, but for everyday casual usage the mobile phone will remain the form factor for 15 years.
JF: Have you thought about monetizing some of the layers that would be unique to you. Is there a business strategy behind that?
CB: Yeah, sure... but do understand that we don't own the content.
JF: And you don't want to?
CB: No, never, because it would only interfere. We are only like the Internet or the browser and everybody is creating their own websites... everybody is creating their own AR experiences, and they are the owners of the content. They are responsible, we just facilitate. So, we will never monetize on the content ourselves. By providing the app store model we provide the transaction system which makes it easier for the developer to earn money and we take a percentage of that. So, there are different monetization models for us. The thing is, this industry is still extremely young. It's embryonic. We are in the 1994 of the Internet. It's very unclear about what the Facebooks of AR will be. Everybody wants us to start monetizing. We could, but that would also end or limit our immense growth capability because there is such huge market opportunity for us. So together with our VCs we decided not to monetize yet but to work out different strategies... we actually see AR as the next mass media.
JF: Let me ask you about some of the things that are being said about AR, for example, that AR is already at the top of the Gartner "hype-cycle" and that the next move for AR is into the "trough of disillusionment." How will you manage these expectations?
CB: It's interesting because we had already drawn a "hype-cycle" back in February 2009 for AR. There is not one type of AR; AR is so many things. Geospatial AR, webcam AR. And 3D... 3D is the next big thing and AR is all about 3D... and Layar is full 3D. So, we're not worried; we saw this coming. What we see actually is that this will be a deciding year in augmented reality. Because everybody sees the potential, everybody; all big brands... Qualcomm is launching its SDK; Apple will do something; Google obviously has Goggles so it's getting more mature because more players will step in. We believe we are quite well positioned in that space because we are about AR experiences and about facilitating content. We are fully platform independent. That's not something that Apple or Google can say.
JF: Claire thanks so much for your time. It's been great discussing the potential of AR with you.
CB: You're very welcome!