Welcome to Altar, friends! My name is Josh Ortiz — I’m one of Altar’s cofounders. We’re a small Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) startup, building…well, check out later posts for more on that :). To start, though, I want to paint a picture of our vision. Like many others, we think that AR, rather than VR, is going to be the spatial technology which weaves its way into our daily lives in the coming decade. So, to frame our vision, I’d like to pose this question: what can augmented reality do for society?
There is so much information out there right now, for both businesses and consumers: event listings on Eventbrite, articles on Wikipedia, sales process documentations, pages indexed on Google, ProPublica pieces circulating on Facebook, a text your friend sent you three weeks ago with the address of that one restaurant that was on the tip of your tongue. No matter what, the burden is on us — the humans with two hands and one channel for attention — to retrieve the right information at the right time. That’s the source of an enormous distraction from life around us. It presents a big issue to industries like logistics and manufacturing medicine, and everyday knowledge work, too: how do I access the information relevant to what I’m doing right now? And, even more difficult: how do I figure out what information I should access?
At its core, AR is a new interface. But, that interface requires computer vision (CV) technology to work well. Once the interface is working, that also de facto means your computer knows something — perhaps a lot of somethings — about the world around you. And as a direct result, it can figure out what information is missing. Thus, contextual computing: AR, driven by computer vision, will enable the efficient and automatic display of contextually relevant information in both consumer and enterprise settings. I view this as a cognitive extension: our brains get us the information we need, when we need it, or otherwise figure out how to find it. That task is the thing computers are becoming incredible at doing; on the flip-side, the thing that’s most uniquely human, and most difficult, is synthesizing new information. Creating new things. Coming up with new ideas. As the computerizable tasks of information storage and timely retrieval are taken care of by AR, CV, and other related technologies, we’re going to be able to focus more energy, time, and cognitive resources on the human specialties of synthesis and creation. Imagine: you’re researching a blog post (much like this one). Right now, you might open up 10–15 tabs on different windows or screens, find relevant chunks, go back to your text editor and take notes on them, repeat. With AR, your tabs can be suspended in the middle of your room. You reach out and grab a relevant paragraph, and pull it off the page. You reach out and grab another relevant paragraph from another website, and do the same. You’re free to move these ideas around as you wish — combining or contrasting — without friction.
In-person meetings are better than videoconferences because you feel like you’re actually there with someone else. This is called “social presence”. Augmented Reality displays, combined with cameras that can record volumetric data in realtime (i.e., a 3D model, not just a flat image), are going to enable true social presence across distances. If we’re both wearing AR glasses, you can see me at your kitchen table — while I see you sitting at mine — and we have a conversation as if we’re in the room together. AR can effectively bring people together from far apart, no travel necessary; this means it will be much easier to maintain strong relationships with friends, colleagues, and/or clients no matter where they are on the planet.
AR has another interesting social implication. Conversation is usually about something. “The trees have beautiful leaves. What’s your favorite season?”, “That episode of Sherlock was insane!”, etc. Pokemon Go, a very simple “Augmented Reality” experience, caused people to socialize more. A world with many interactive AR holograms will provide troves of fascinating experiences to drive social interactions.
AR and VR are both spatial media, which means that with the proper tools, we can create in space… as opposed to on paper or a screen. At the risk of overstating the obvious: AR and VR literally add another dimension to work with. For VR, there are a couple of different takes on this right now. The first take is like Tilt Brush: painting in 3D. Or, like Oculus’s Medium: sculpting in 3D. Or, like Quill (an experience for Oculus): a different kind of painting in 3D. These are classical media that get brought into space. And it’s amazing! Just google “Tilt Brush artwork” and prepare to be blown away.
The second take on creation in space is building functional objects and spaces (granted, there’s some overlap between this and Tilt Brush/Medium — think about this second take as the superset of the first take). I’m talking about the ability to create absolutely massive virtual spaces, with relative ease. There are a number of companies working on this sort of technology: Linden Lab’s Sansar is an example. In fact, we put together a prototype of this potential ability, currently functional for the HTC Vive. This category of creation can be classified as “metaverse” creation. But…the metaverse doesn’t translate very well from VR to AR. After all, AR isn’t supposed to replace the world; it’s supposed to augment it.
Let me ask you this: what would it be like to have a magic wand? The draw of stories like Harry Potter, and the magic they employ, is how humans can pretty much use a language to augment their reality. That’s a medium. Magic is a medium. And the ridiculous thing about augmented reality is that, with a pretty substantial number of senses (vision, hearing, eventually touch) we perceive the AR-generated holograms as real. The holograms can, for all intents and purposes, be magic. With the proper tools in AR, we can express an unrestricted creativity and share our imagination with the world. So the question then becomes: what kinds of ad-hoc, on-the-fly world manipulations can we let everyday people create? Imagine just wanting your window to have a view of a castle courtyard, saying that out loud, and then voila, that’s what happens…
Augmented reality, as I’ve laid out above, will give us the following:
- Contextual computing, enabling you to focus on, or attend to, the world around you.
- Magic, a.k.a. a medium with which you can ad-hoc modify the physical world.
- AR will enable people to feel like they’re together, even if they’re far apart.
- People will interact with, and about, the AR content they see.
When you add all these together, you get a world in which our everyday tasks are imbued with creativity, exploration, and heightened socialization… a world that introduces fun, enjoyment, and excitement into even the most everyday things. At Altar, we’re working on bringing you this world — a world that you can truly call yours.