After attending a conference about making virtual media come alive in a city that is virtually non-existent on Western maps, the future of an emerging field has never felt so real to me.
Perhaps I had watched too many X-Men movies on China Southern Airlines, but attending the Virtual Reality Summit in Gui'An, China, on October 8 felt reminiscent of those scenes where Professor Charles Xavier rolls his wheelchair into Cerebro and tracks down mutants all over the world. If you're in New York or Silicon Valley, or in Austin or Raleigh, you might have some sense of the activity going on outside of your immediate surroundings. But flying halfway around the world to a part of China so remote that it is literally not on the map (seriously, try searching for "Gui'An" or "Guian" in Google Maps), one can appreciate just how many "mutants" are gathering in disparate locations to learn from each other and collaborate.
These networks keep growing. One of the hosts of the conference, ARinChina, brought me over along with a group of about a half-dozen Westerners. This media company connects a community of 60,000 developers, all of whom are invested in staying ahead of breakthrough technologies like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and the hybrid known as mixed reality (MR). The AR track where I presented was hosted by RAVV, a new technology think tank that is pulling together subject matter experts across robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, VR and AR. RAVV is building an international ecosystem that includes its own approaches for startup incubation, knowledge sharing and other collaborative endeavors.
I'm not being hyperbolic or even envoking the Chinese tradition of saving face when I say it was a humbling experience. I felt like a dwarf among giants. If this was a tech conference version of the X-Men, I was looking around and meeting Storm, Mystique and (fittingly for VR) Cyclops. Me? I was the extra whose superpower was using chopsticks for a meal without spilling anything on himself.
Here are a few observations from the conference, including discussions held during the weekend of tours and demonstrations in Gui'An:
AR works best when it's invisible. This was the theme of my talk, and it was a constant, implicit refrain throughout the summit. Consider Snapchat Lenses and Pokémon Go. People use these apps because they're fun, and odds are the vast majority have no clue that AR is involved.
B2B will be a major driver of AR and MR. You know who most appreciates head-mounted displays? Professionals who work with their hands, need content delivered directly in front of them, and don't care about how they look. What's likely is that a lot of companies will initially invest in these technologies and related content to improve efficiency, reduce errors, and save costs. More consumer-friendly applications will follow. Imagine empowering people to enhance their skills at various jobs, from basic home and car repair, to cooking, to DIY projects.
Brands must constantly hone their value proposition. I was having a discussion with a presenter about the viability of some ideas for brands, and the brand name Procter and Gamble came up. I said it was unlikely people will take out their phones in the grocery store and try out some AR experience, scanning around to find the best kind of laundry detergent. But if a brand created an app that could use the camera to recognize stains and tell people how to clean them, any parent with young children at home would love it.
Some of the most important technical specifications are about the optics. The quality of the lenses makes a tremendous difference when using any kind of headset. I got to try the new VR viewer from Wearality, a company run by optics pioneer David A. Smith. The crispness of the screen, along with the breadth of the field of view, delivers a breakthrough in quality, especially for any device at a sub-$100 price point. Marketers will be especially appreciative of improvements here, as they'll then be able to ensure consumers appreciate the investment they make in producing content for these new media.
It takes a village, and a country, and a world. The goal of the Virtual Reality Summit wasn't just to show off cool gadgetry, though that was part of it. It was to pull together support for business development, content creation, financing, manufacturing, infrastructure, and hardware and software innovation. These are topics of interest for Gui'An in particular, which has quickly become China's big data capital. But they are also topics for everyone investing their time, money, and energy in these fields.
To get a sense of how global the emerging mixed reality field is, consider that, in February, China's e-commerce giant Alibaba led the $800 million Series C round for Florida-based Magic Leap, an MR startup. As our daily reality becomes more virtual and augmented, it doesn't matter where someone is on the map. This field is connecting far-flung practitioners, hinting at a time, soon, when AR, VR and MR will connect people in ways never before possible.