For most people, augmented reality became real with the explosion of Pokémon Go. People who hadn’t taken a leisurely walk outside in years were walking around the streets bumping into new friends (and sign posts) while collecting cute animated characters that appeared on the sidewalk. For millions of people, the experience opened a new layer of science fiction, where they could interact with fantasy. The promise of augmented reality, at its best, is a new category of creativity.
That was two years ago. Given Pokémon Go’s popularity, why haven’t any other augmented reality experiences grown to similarly massive levels?
The YouTube model
Augmented reality is in a similar state to where online video was twenty years ago. If you are old enough to remember someone trying to send you a video through email, you’ll recall you either had to wait an eternity to download an attachment (assuming the file wasn’t large enough to be rejected by your email provider), or you had to download a separate video player that you likely only used once or twice.
Along came YouTube and created a play button that just worked; no waiting, no downloads. YouTube raised $3.5 million in September of 2004. By the summer of 2005 — only nine months later — Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion. Today, YouTube is on every screen in the world. When you click play on a YouTube video, it just works. YouTube handles all the work on the backend to make that possible. This is the first hurdle for augmented reality: a single place where people can publish, share, and discover augmented reality experiences.
What I mean by “augmented reality experiences” are things that are often not as built out as an entire app, but that provide entertainment value or functionality that can be used as quickly as a YouTube video might be used. Most YouTube videos are only 3-6 minutes long, which obviously isn’t as long as a full feature length film.
The second hurdle is establishing a way for anyone to create augmented reality experiences. Currently, there is no standard method to make or experience augmented reality. Developers can choose from Unity, Amazon Sumerian, or several other tools, and they can experience it on HoloLens, iOS, Android, Magic Leap, etc. Once they build an augmented reality experience for one device, they must build it again and again if they want their content available on other platforms. It’s a cumbersome process.
There will continue to be a place for premium augmented reality experiences, but just as YouTube has launched a tidal wave of creation, creativity, and unforeseen uses of video, augmented reality is crying out for “user generated content.” Just as most YouTube content is created with mobile phones, when augmented reality can be created with similar ease, we will see an explosion of new mediums and use cases we can’t imagine today.
Picture a catalog of experiences as big as YouTube where you can interact with the content and step into the action. With phones now in a state where virtually everyone has an AR viewing device in their pocket, the world is ready for an influx in content. Imagine what will happen when we put the tools for creation of layering fiction, animation and special effects onto the already incredible reality around us.
The platforms of the future
But launching a platform-agnostic augmented reality ecosystem that parallels YouTube is not easy. I know, because I am building one right now, called Seek.
With online video, creators can make a video with many tools available to them, and once they upload it to YouTube, virtually anyone with a screen can watch. With augmented reality, you must support many different formats. Each platform, from iOS’ ARKit to Android’s ARCore, has a different set of protocols for the interactive actions that a user can take. For example, if you develop using HoloLens, your user employs hand gestures as minute as pinching their fingers to take an action. The same action will be deployed differently on an iPhone.
A developer that wants to reach users on all platforms must re-build the augmented reality experience for each platform. If we can build an ecosystem that manages these different protocols, creators can focus on their content, not on transcribing their content for a variety of platforms.
Currently if you deploy an augmented reality app in the Apple App Store, for example, it can take up to a month to get approved all the scripts that allow for user interactions. If you make a mistake, it can take another week or more to issue an update. A creator-optimized AR ecosystem needs to have scripts that are pre-approved by Apple and other platforms so creators can upload content immediately. The system also needs to allow creators to have their AR experiences distributed across all platforms, automatically detecting and deploying the proper protocol for their viewing device.
Trying to solve the problem
Before YouTube became the winner, there were several players — Dailymotion, Vimeo, even Google — trying to solve the online video-sharing problem in different ways. Augmented reality is still in that kind of Wild West phase. Some people are working on full-blown solutions, while others are working on specific elements hoping their technology gets used inside everything else that gets built. Though in some ways we are competing, we are all in this together. We are all pushing for the same thing: for augmented reality to succeed.
It may sound obvious, but the primary thing that helps content networks grow is content. In the same way that YouTube content exploded alongside the ubiquity of powerful smartphone video cameras, once augmented reality creation tools are on your phone, this new form of content will flourish as well. Just as early viral videos spurred creators to outdo each other, there is about to be a similar race with augmented reality.
I’m not talking about highly skilled developers creating the most elaborate AR experiences imaginable. I am talking about creators of all stripes building audiences which will allow them to monetize through ad revenue sharing, brand sponsorship, and more.
In our case, AR experiences are kind of like small apps that all run within Seek. Seek allows creators to publish experiences that are as simple as just playing with a model of a heart to as complex as designing a new house. In the end, all of these experiences will be accessed through one app.
While we at Seek are building what we hope will be the YouTube of augmented reality, we are not the only ones trying to help this new form of content become more accessible to everyone. A company called 8th Wall has developed an SDK (Software Development Kit) that AR creators can use to make their applications compatible across iOS and Android even with older phones that don’t support ARKit or ARCore. Ubiquity6 is working on a platform for multi-player AR gaming experiences where you and I can play together in an AR environment across a long distance, but with avatars that make it seem like we are in the same place. Facebook and Snapchat are building out augmented reality capabilities and distribution specific to their respective applications.
The tools of creation for augmented reality are about to land in the hands of the masses. The flood of AR content and creativity is almost here. Get ready to build your audience and save your spot.
Jon Cheney is the CEO and co-founder of Seek, an augmented reality app where anyone can upload and share AR experiences.