Every year I leave the Augmented World Expo (AWE) exhausted from walking, talking, standing, schmoozing, and suffering from sensory overload. The conference and expo, which just wrapped its 14th annual edition in Santa Clara, is the behind-the-scenes ecosystem show that makes the whole damn thing run, but even seasoned techies have a hard time following the relentless inside baseball talk and middleware demos. It’s estimated over 6,000 people attended to hear 450 speakers over three days, and the two-day expo with 300 exhibitors, the largest in AWE’s history. Qualcomm VP and GM of XR Hugo Swart said of AWE: “Developers are the stars of the show here.”
The show this year comes at an historic moment: just days before Apple unveiled its Vision Pro XR headset, which many of the AWE attendees will begin developing content for as soon as this summer. In a rush to beat the Apple news, Meta introduced the Quest 3 on last week. The new mixed reality device is a noticeable improvement over the Quest 2 and will perhaps be even better than its predecessor, the $1200 Quest Pro, which the company was demoing in a booth, its first at AWE. The new lighter, faster Quest, sporting the latest Qualcomm processors, will be available in Q4 for $500. The Reality One from Apple is expected to cost as much as $3,000. At the same time, Google is working with Samsung and Qualcomm on its own headset.
AWE founder and CEO Ori Inbar opened the show with his annual welcome address on Wednesday morning with the theme “XR is everywhere.” As always, his keynote was a mix of corny evangelism, insight, and technological sleight of hand. In this case, Inbar had a digital twin in a human-scale holographic capsule by Ahrt. The life-size, holographic Ori, was scripted by ChatGPT. All of AWE’s talks will be free online at AWE.live by the end of next week.
Inbar’s opening was followed by a fireside chat with author and co-founder of the Lamina 1 blockchain startup, which is building a platform to enable a persistent spatial 3D virtual world that could support a world-scale virtual economy. Stephenson is most famous for his novel Snow Crash, which first called this other digital dimension “the Metaverse.” He emphasized that there will be no Metaverse without a way for users and creators to have a friction-free and secure way of exchanging value.
Inbar and Stephenson were followed by Hugo Swart, VP and GM of XR for Qualcomm, whose XR2 chipset powers most XR headsets, including the Quest. He took a deep dive into how developers harness the power and purpose of a cross-platform ecosystem through Snapdragon Spaces, an SDK (software developer kit) Qualcomm introduced in 2021 that works with the Unity and Unreal Engine game development platforms. Using Spaces, developers can much more easily deploy applications against multiple devices, which is how Android phones work. Every time Swart mentioned Spaces there were cheers from the audience.
In addition to the looming introduction of Apple’s new device, AI was the topic de jour, supplanting the passe Metaverse, which is apparently a decade away. “Bubbles don’t deflate,” said Apple, Google, and AWS XR veteran Avi Bar-Zeev in his keynote. “They burst.” AI might not be like that. It seems to be melting into everything. “AI is what XR has been waiting for,” said Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz, who beamed holographically from the Boston Consulting Group offices in Fort Lauderdale via Ahrt capsule in one of the first sessions. “We are still in the Gemini phase of XR development,” he said.
Bar-Zeev concluded his presentation with five principles for XR and AI worth repeating here: (1) Works for the benefit of each person and with their informed consent (2) Creators should be able to make a living in a thriving ecosystem (3) Those who benefit the most from a thriving ecosystem should pay for it (4) Safety is non-negotiable and (5) You can’t trust technology to solve anti-social human behavior.
Snap, the camera company whose mobile AR lenses are used by consumers six billion times a day, has been increasing its presence at AWE since the pandemic. Last year, its co-founder and CTO Bobby Murphy gave a keynote. This year company executives Resh Sidhu and Ben Feuerstein demonstrated their location-based work with Disney, Coke, and Live Nation. Snap’s activation outside the Mission ballroom demonstrated its strategy of taking AR off the app and into the world with magic mirrors bringing AR magic off the phone and into the physical world. They also had a remarkable display of AR Lenses in the entire space. The new Snap Specs were on hand for demonstration. You wouldn’t wear them all day, but they would add a digital dimension to an event like Coachella or the World Cup. The new Specs also feature video stereography which has a remarkable 3D effect inside the glasses, which have no street date, and don’t have the visual appeal of earlier models although at this conference that is a minor detail. Most of the software and hardware here is for hardhats – enterprise – and none of it is that sexy.
There were several Boston Dynamic robots roaming around. Thanks to the AWS prototyping team of Kimate Richards and Heidi Buck, I got to control one wearing a Magic Leap 2 headset. The see-through AR headset allowed me to see what the robot sees with an array of instructions like sit and lay down.
Both Magic Leap and former Magic Leapers were in abundance at AWE. In addition to Abovitz, the company CEO, Peggy Johnson, gave a keynote, and demonstrated medical use cases. There were long lines of people at their booth waiting for a demo of the Magic Leap 2, just as they were when I saw them last at CES in January. The headset was recently approved for use in operating rooms.
Next door to Magic Leap on the show floor were two companies led by ex-Leapers, Xreal (formerly Nreal), founded by Chi Xu and Bing Xiao, and Sightful, an Israeli company that recently introduced a monitor-less PC, Spacetop. Instead of a monitor, with this PC the user wears AR glasses (right now the Xreal Light). The CPU and the keyboard are combined. Xreal was showing off a new headset, The XReal Beam. In addition, the company is launching Spatial Display, an upgraded app that will allow better compatibility (yay!) for its devices. The new 3DOF headset will give anchoring capability to the 210” screen projected in their Xreal Beam screen reflectors. Despite being new, there are developers like Dan Scarfe whose app XRAI adds real-time subtitles, translation, and ChatGPT.
One of the first things I saw when I walked on to the show floor was Vuzix founder and CEO Paul Travers demonstrating the reference design for their new 32-gram Vuzix Ultralite smartphone screen extenders, which will be available before the end of the year. Vuzix has been at this since 1997, making Travers one of AR’s genuine OGs. It’s not often you see a public company CEO on the floor of a trade show pitching his technology to a group of mostly irrelevant strangers. Vuzix, which has made its bones building highly regarded microdisplays for boring enterprise applications, seems to be relishing the opportunity to address the new consumer market.
AntReality, maker of eye-catching waveguide displays, was showing off its optical technology at the show, just as they had at CES. The demos showed off the capability of AntReality lenses which will begin appearing in new headsets next year. CEO Zheng Qin told me they are in talks with all the major players in the XR field: Apple, Amazon, Meta, and Google. Their 120-degree Cross-fire lenses toggle back and forth between VR and AR.
Lenovo, whose A3 AR smart glasses are bundled with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Spaces development kit, also had a big presence on the show floor, where they were demoing their sleek new mixed reality XR headsets pitched to enterprises, the Think Reality VRX. The new $1,300 device is extremely light and comfortable. Lenovo was running a VR experience, the collaboration app Engage, whose CEO David Whelan was on hand to discuss. Engage is a popular Metaverse for training, collaboration, and education, home to dozens of universities and companies like PWC.
Jay Wright’s Campfire was also giving demos in a cute campsite-themed booth. Wright previously created Vuforia at Qualcomm. The Campfire headset was originally created to leverage original Meta technology, pivoting it from virtual monitors to remote design collaboration and review. The system has several components: the headset, magnetic tabletop strips, and a new kind of rubber floor tile that allows images to appear anchored around you. The company introduced two noteworthy innovations. The first is the that app is now completely cross-platform. PCs, tablets, phones, and headsets can all collaborate together while remote. The headset is now optional. Wright said his goal is to make the system “brain-dead simple.”
China’s TCL, previously known as a manufacturer of low-cost TV displays, first came to our attention at CES in January. The company is spinning off the AR effort into a new company, which was initially funded with $15 million. At AWE, we had a chance to demo the TCL RayNeo X2 AR glasses, which have binocular, full-color Micro-LED optical waveguides, capable of doing real-time translation, and can use ChatGPT. The expected release date is this fall.
We got another look at Tilt 5, the tabletop XR game system played with an AR headset connected to PC. Founder and CEO Jeri Ellsworth was at the booth both days, pitching her heart out as if her company depended on it (it doesn’t). She said she does it because she loves it. Ellsworth told me they are shipping Tilt5 tabletop AR game systems as fast as they can make them. The $359 headset, wand, and table mat now have over 50 game titles available.
Digilens is going into production in Q3 of its new ARGO device, which VP and GM Nima Shams characterized as a Hololens replacement. It weighs 200 grams and has a 30-degree field of view. To date, the company has raised over $150M. They are using Ultra Leap for hand tracking, dimming to allow daytime use, and voice control to keep the users’ hands-free. It will be included in Snapchat Spaces, so developers can easily port existing XR content to the platform. DigiLens announced partnerships with Mojo Vision, UltraLeap, Wisear, and Tactile to expand the capabilities of its AR glasses which also now support Snapdragon Spaces.
Zapbox was doing private demos of its new Zapbox. Originally launched in 2017 as “AR’s answer to Google Cardboard, Magic Leap for super cheap. The low-cost paper has been replaced by plastic, so users don’t have to construct them. The price, $75 on the Zappar website, is still extraordinarily low. Users clip their smartphone into the holder, fire up a stereoscopic app (there are a dozen of them) for an unmatched AR experience. Three of the themes we noted developing on the show are no-code XR development platforms, 3D displays, and Virtual Positioning Systems (VPS). The four products I looked at in this category took radically different approaches. Looking Glass presented some new products, including a $6,000 “Lite Form Kiosk,” in which a brand ambassador or mascot could appear volumetrically and run on ChatGPT. All their hardware is designed and manufactured in Brooklyn, NY.
Sony was demonstrating its Spatial Reality displays, which was seen at NAB in April. The 3D displays rival Looking Glass in price and quality. They offer a 27” display for $5000 and a small 15.6” display that’s $2600.
Leia’s booth displayed its incredible 3D Lume Pad featuring its accessibly priced 3D tablet, the Lume Pad 2, which integrates ChatGPT and Dall-E for 3D image creation. Images literally jump off the flat screen and into the physical world. They seem to float a foot in front of the 12.4” screen. The stereo cameras on the front of the pad provide eye tracking, and also enable stereography, using a suite of Leia branded apps such as Leia Cam, Leia Player, Leia Tube, Leia Dream, Leia Pix, the Lume Tablet can convert both 2D images and video into 3D. This remarkable device has won a CES innovation award every year for the past four years.
Niantic, Snap, and Japan’s Psychic VR, maker of STYLY, use visual positioning systems to anchor AR content to locations in the physical world, even though the content creator might be on the other side of the world. These spaces have been scanned with remarkable accuracy. In the STYLY booth, I got to experience its location-based AR, which literally enables the world to be painted with data. Indeed, they turned a shopping center into an art exhibition. They are hoping AWE will bring more developers to their system.
The best parts of AWE are often spontaneous demos given by developers and entrepreneurs in the hallways of the conference and convention center. I ran into Jason Marsh, who showed me how his Flow spatial data visualization tool works with the Magic Leap 2. Game developer and entrepreneur Johnny Monserrat landed a very important and beloved sci-fi brand to build a location-based outdoor game. He raised a seed round, which has enabled him to create a compelling demo of what it’s like to walk around a real park that has been converted into an alien planet.
There wasn’t much talk about last year’s hot topic, The Metaverse, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead. I ran into Sean Mann, CEO of RP1, whose company has perfected software that enables an unlimited number of live participants to share the same virtual space, without resorting to breaking groups of people up into separate rooms, as Epic Games does for Fortnite, a technique called “sharding.” With just 30 gaming PCs, Mann explained, their system now supports 100,000 simultaneous unique users. With additional PCs added, Mann thinks RP1 could scale a Metaverse with an unlimited number of participants.
Bobak Tavangar was meeting with writers and influencers to demo his Brilliant Labs’ open-source AR monocle. It is a devkit composed of a monocle with a clip that lets you attach it to the frame of your glasses. This monocle contains a small AR display, a camera, and two touch sensors around it. It is transparent so that you can see its circuits. The idea of the creators is to release to the community a device that is fully open-source and can be used to experiment with AR. This monocle became pretty popular a few weeks ago when some students playing with it connected it with ChatGPT and simulated the use of ChatGPT and AR to give people live suggestions during work interviews or dates. When not used, the $350 Monocle can sit inside its cool charging case.
Jigspace CEO Zack Duff has raised $8M for his 3D PowerPoint company, which has grown to 25 employees. They were part of the Boost accelerator cohort in 2016. The system allows 3D products and CAD drawings to be included in the presentation. It’s a SAAS product that has been growing organically like Monocle, with no marketing, just word of mouth.
Ryan Burgoyne Founder & CEO of Skyglass had been looking for me the whole show to demo his iPhone app for Virtual Production. The tools to make blockbusters are increasingly becoming democratized.
AWE’s coveted Auggie Awards for excellence in XR were announced on Thursday night, June 1st. This year AWE awarded a special $100,000 prize for applications that fight climate change, and it went to “Between Two Worlds,” an AR app that invites viewers to experience wildlife art as they’ve never seen it before: scanning the endangered animals with your mobile device brings them to life to reveals the myriad threats to not only them but their habitats as well. You can find all the Auggie Award winners here.
I came home with a wicked head cold, the result of three days of crowded, loud rooms with people face talking due to the volume, and shared headsets. I took a COVID test (negative, thank god) before getting on a plane but writing this recap has not been easy while sweating off a fever.
I couldn’t see everything and talk to everyone, of course, and almost all the exhibitors had some news, so AWE has thoughtfully gathered those here.
Finally, after fourteen years at the Santa Clara Convention Center, AWE USA 2024 will be moving to Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center in Southern California, USA on June 18-20, 2024.
Charlie Fink is the author of the AR-enabled books “Metaverse,” (2017) and “Convergence” (2019). In the early 90s, Fink was EVP & COO of VR pioneer Virtual World Entertainment. He teaches at Chapman University in Orange, CA.