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One of the problems with AR is that most public exposure to the technology comes from shiny demos that exaggerate or downright fabricate experiences that don’t actually exist today. Magic Leap was initially the biggest culprit, but it’s become accepted practice across the sector.
“We’re in this unfortunate era of AR demo-itis,” said TechCrunch’s Josh Constine to kick off an interview with Facebook’s Ficus Kirkpatrick at TechCrunch Sessions AR/VR. “I get the need to inspire people about the exciting future of [AR], but is there an unhealthy element to this hype?
The answer is that it’s a balance. Inspiring developers and user demand is important but if overdone, it can give AR a bad name and convince people that it’s vaporware. And the industry as a whole has arguably erred on the latter side of that balance, admits Kirkpatrick.
“Everyone working in AR has been guilty of showing off a cool tech demo that doesn’t have a clear path to be a real product,” he said. “I think we need to advance the tech, and I think demos are cool and they’re inspirational but it does need to be balanced by actual stuff you can use.”
Kirkpatrick’s prevailing design principle is one we’ve espoused in the past: build for native utility and repeat/active use as opposed to novelty. That sounds obvious, but relatively few AR developers are doing it. Kirkpatrick’s team goes through specific protocols to achieve this goal.
“It’s about thinking ‘Is this something that someone will come back to, or is it kind of a splashy thing?'” he said. “And then we do a ton of testing… internal testing… user research. And at the end of the day, the test for us is if people are coming back and using it.”
In early days, these success factors are mostly unknown and it’s a game of feeling out what resonates with users. But as an industry, shared best practices are emerging — many based on physical realities of mobile AR. For example, design around the limitation of short sessions.
“There are a couple of things that are pretty different about a handheld device,” said Kirkpatrick. “Notions like going up and seeing an augmented street sign isn’t really going to work because nobody’s going to walk around with their hand out like this [gesturing] all day long.”
There’s also the concept of “activation energy” which is the friction to launch an AR experience. As we’ve examined, app downloads (as opposed to web AR) are an adoption barrier for this reason. In short, the appeal or utility of the AR experience has to outweigh the activation energy.
“[It’s] use cases that are so valuable and promising that they’re worth overcoming the friction of taking your phone out of your pocket and getting into an app.” he said. “There are quite thin needles we need to thread in terms of finding cases that actually work like that on handhelds.”
Speaking of thin lines, a platform like Facebook has to strike a balance between guiding developers with AR best practices, and letting them experiment with new use cases. Kirkpactick says it does this by seeding the ecosystem with a few proven “lighthouse” AR experiences.
“It’s really important that we as the platform set examples of what can be done,” he said. “It doesn’t foreclose any opportunity for someone to do something new and creative, and it does maybe inspire people who need that initial push to start from a new jumping-off point.”
One example of a “lighthouse” is Story Time in Facebook Portal. It adds AR animations like selfie lenses for adults telling stories (think: grandparents) to children remotely. Tom Emrich rightly heralds it as a “trojan horse” for AR in the home. Other lighthouses expand into commerce.
“In commerce in particular, we’re running some interesting tests where you can try on sunglasses before you buy them, and you can try on makeup before you buy it,” said Kirkpatrick. “Cases like that are interesting and solve problems for people and maybe save you a trip to the store.”
Meanwhile lots of use cases, as always, hinge upon the great AR enabler: the AR cloud. Facebook — along with other tech giants — will play a big role in building it out. But this brings up the perennial question of a unified cloud versus an interoperable “plurality” of proprietary clouds.
“It would be good if we could arrive at some kind of open standard such that we don’t have a number of siloed views of the world,” said Kirkpatrick. “I just don’t think it’s that interesting to have the IKEA map of the world and then the Facebook map of the world and so on.”
As for the part of this interview that already got some industry buzz, Kirkpatrick did admit on stage the (partially) new revelation that Facebook is working on AR glasses. These are mostly experimental and part of the interlinked AR & VR research at Facebook Reality Lab.
We’ve talked a lot about different technology for VR and AR that accrue to augmented reality,” he said. “We have no product to announce now, but we have a lot of very talented people doing really compelling cutting-edge research that we hope plays a part in the future of headsets.”
See the entire panel discussion below.
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