Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
This past week’s release of the iPhone X brought with it the typical Apple ad tsunami, touting that, among other talents, “Augmented Reality. Is a reality.”
True enough. This is probably the first time we’ve seen a snarling Tyrannosaurus Rex stalking around a basketball court, as it does in the iPhone X ad. Rex was probably just mad they wouldn’t pass the ball to his tiny little baby hands for the open three. Apple can indeed take some credit for supercharging augmented reality right now, and not just with the powerful, highly capable iPhone X (never mind the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the X’s also capable if less powerful brethren, released to an indifferent market a month ago).
Back in June, Apple gave developers ARKit, its set of tools to make AR app creation easier. This fall, Google followed suit, announcing its version, AR Core. And Facebook is offering AR Studios.
So, we’re here, in AR World Version 1.2. I say v. 1.2, because AR has been around a while in various guises. Notably, Snapchat has been teaching the kids about AR the past couple of years. And Snapchat is doing so well with AR advertising that Business Insider just said it is “blowing past Facebook, Google and others when it comes to augmented-reality ads.” Last week’s cool 3D World Lens put users in the living room of Netflix hit “Stranger Things.”
Now, stuff like that will become routinely available to millions of people who couldn’t figure out the befuddling interface of their 12-year-old nephew’s favorite app. But beyond Snapchat lenses that send Alaska Air planes flying around your head, or hot dogs dancing a jig, or end you up in the Stranger Things living room, there’s a big ol’ world out there to be augmented by other folks. And now it’s time to figure out how the entertainment business will do it.
The truth is, though, I’m not sure how much the entertainment business is ready to do, at least for a while.
Game developers have been among the first to release cool apps such as The Machines, extending the mobile experience beyond small flat screens onto your tabletop and far beyond (AR Dungeons & Dragons, anyone?).
But most other initial AR apps have been rather prosaic: measure a room; see how furniture might fit your place; check the fit of a piece of clothing. Useful, yes, and practical, with huge implications for e-commerce, blah, blah, blah.
Long-time tech journalist/sensei Steven Levy, in fact, suggested the best feature right now to show off iPhone X capabilities was Animojis, which use the phones sophisticate facial-recognition technologies to map your expressions and speech to animated emojis. The animoji that Levy preferred for his demos is, I do not kid, a talking, smiling pile of feces. That’s sort of amusing, even kinda entertaining. And I expect it will spark no end of nasty messages from abusive bosses and bitter exes in years to come. O joy.
But much of this stuff is also, let’s face it, kinda boring. As long as AR is trapped in the phone, insiders have told me, it may be unrealistic to expect too much more in terms of AR entertainment.
For more significant kinds of entertainment to thrive in this universe, creators will have to figure out the cool things and killer experiences/apps that take AR, and AR users, beyond the phone and to a very different place, even as they remain in the place where they already are. It won’t happen overnight. Members of an AR/VR panel I moderated at the recent Digital Hollywood conference suggest that all those prosaic business uses will drive AR for the next few years while technology catches up, perhaps with smaller, cooler, more powerful glasses than those we’ve seen from Snap and Google.
In fact, said Shannon Norrell, a virtual-reality evangelist for HP, creative types should focus on enterprise-focused AR projects while the enterprise market develops. The production skills are the same, he said, and eventually entertainment AR will Become a Thing. When it does, AR should be a far, far bigger opportunity than VR.
Jay Samit, vice chairman of business-consulting giant Deloitte Digital, said sports AR is an area of huge opportunity right now. Team-branded AR eyewear, the 21st-Century equivalent of opera glasses, are coming soon that will bring the in-home experience to the stadium.
“Right now, the in-game experience is not as good as your home experience,” Samit said. “There are no statistics, no replays, you don’t know what’s happening with your fantasy teams, the team doesn’t know who buys what at the concessions.” But coming very soon, Samit said, are AR “glasses that you just wear to your sporting events. Parts of this are coming in 2018 and they’re killer apps, because they have to be.”
What about entertainment beyond sports and videogames?
Even now, getting into AR can cost as little as $10,000 to get going, I’m told by a close personal relative who has researched this. That brings it comfortably within reach of even many online creators. Will some of those big-name creators – on YouTube, Instagram or or other platforms – begin to make new kinds of AR entertainment and other programming, bringing along their million-plus followings? Apple must think so. It snubbed many traditional tech product reviewers and gave YouTube stars much earlier access to the iPhone X, a marketing-savvy approach that a miffed VentureBeat writer nonetheless deemed “bizarre.”
Snapchat, with so much riding on AR v.1.2 (or perhaps, v. 1.5 or even 2.0) might/should create its own version of AR Kit for its users and brand partners. It also could convert or expand its Discover section into a haven for cool AR experiences from news, feature and entertainment brands, as well as from emergent native stars.
What happens with Musical.ly and Live.ly, two thriving sites whose tweener audiences will certainly embrace cool AR content if it’s offered? Will they construct AR karaoke//singalong/live performances opportunities for their users? Virtual rooms filled with other fans singing along could take the notion on digital tipping to a whole new level.
And out on the broader web, what might we see?
Will AR entertainment be Shakespeare performed live in your living room, or, given T. Rex’s basketball ambitions, maybe dodging some velociraptors in a Jurassic Park transposed into your den. Could a future Ellen be perched on your own sofa for her next show? One of the challenges, of course, will be figuring out whether AR will end up contained inside the walled gardens – Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram. Or can creators find ways to thrive in the wild, across the rest of the Web. And to do that, it needs to make money.
At the AR/VR Society’s On the Lot conference, I talked with Vince Cacace, founder and CEO of Vertebrae.io, which provides ad tools for what he calls “immersive media:” VR, 360-degree video and now, AR.
Snapchat, especially its Lenses, have taught a budding generation of users to enjoy AR v. 1.1, Cacace said. Now it’s time to create AR experiences that can live everywhere else, and not just in apps, but on browsers that require the least effort by users to have a cool and entertaining experience, even if it’s one created by a brand.
“There’s a lot of people building interesting things with AR Kit and AR Core,” Cacace said. “But it’s hard to create a sticky AR experience because nobody has really figured out the user experience of what AR is and what AR can be best for. To move forward, it’s not just about these one-off showpieces. How do you build a sustainable business?”
And that will be the key to creating transformative entertainment in the world of AR v. 2.0.