IEEE Member Ori Inbar says he wants to see a billion users adopt augmented reality technologies by 2020. To get there, he’s lending a helping hand to entrepreneurs through Super Ventures, a venture capital firm he helped launch this year. It is providing US $10 million in funding focused on AR startups. Inbar and three other experts in the field partnered to provide the funds and to mentor the ventures to help them grow. As of early October, the firm had invested in eight companies.
Inbar was inspired to work in AR because of his children, he says. Instead of spending time outdoors as he did as a child, they watched television or played video games. Inbar wanted to find a way to meld virtual and real worlds to motivate them to go outside and engage with what’s around them.
That led him in 2009 to start Ogmento, which developed AR games. Apple last year acquired the company—renamed Flyby Media—for an undisclosed sum. Another one of Inbar’s ventures, AugmentedReality.org, is a nonprofit organization that aims to advance the field. It produces the international Augmented World Expo conferences, the largest in the field.
“Augmented reality can help people perform significantly better in anything they do,” Inbar says. “The technology essentially either enhances their abilities or equips them with new ones.”
A PIECE OF THE PIE
Super Ventures typically invests about US $100,000 in each startup in return for a 5 percent equity, but the numbers can vary depending on the startup’s needs and how far along it is in developing its product or service.
The firm’s portfolio includes Fringefy, a company in Israel that’s developing a local visual-search app for mobile devices including wearables. App users point their smartphone (or look with their smartglasses) in the direction of, say, a historic building, and written details about the landmark pop up on their device. Or if they point it at a restaurant, reviews appear on the screen. The app integrates GPS and custom computer vision software to detect what the user is pointing to or looking at.
Another venture, Waygo, is a translation app. Users point their smartphone at signs, menus, or other text written in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, and the words are translated into English. Waygo employs optical character recognition and machine-learning software.
Inbar says that now is the ideal time for startups to break into AR, noting that the technology has advanced a great deal since he began.
When he launched Ogmento, his goal was to create AR games similar to Pokémon Go. But the consumer market wouldn’t buy; mobile devices were not advanced enough. AR companies shifted their focus to industrial applications, where they found traction. Ogmento eventually changed its name to Flyby Media and repositioned itself to develop 3-D tracking technologies.
Google incorporated the technology into its Tango project, which allows developers to build apps that make use of 3-D spaces. For example, with Tango MeasureIt, if you are unsure whether a bookcase will fit in your office, take a photo of it and the app will display its measurements.
A NEW INDUSTRY
Now that mobile devices have caught up to the potential of AR, which is becoming mainstream, “the growth of these technologies is inevitable,” Inbar says. He calls AR “the new wave of computing—we’re inventing as we go along.”
In 2010, to help move the field forward, Inbar launched the first Augmented World Expo. The conferences now take place annually on different continents, including Asia, Europe, and North America, to promote the technology and educate tech people through training seminars and mentorships on how to break into the field.
One area of focus is figuring out the best way for people to interact with AR technology. For example, although smartphone apps have helped introduce AR, Inbar says phones are not the best devices for the technology.
“Holding a phone in front of your face can feel awkward,” he says, “and the field of view on the screen is narrow.” He sees smartphones as “a great stepping stone” but predicts that people will eventually prefer to use smartglasses. With their hands free, he says, wearers will be able to interact with their environment in a more natural way.
Once people start experiencing AR in everyday life, it might be hard for them to stop, Inbar continues. As the adoption rate grows, he anticipates that companies and their investors will flock to AR. “Those who wait will have to play catch-up,” he says. “The window of opportunity is closing.”
Many innovations remain to be made, he says. For example, he’s anticipating chips equipped with computer vision capabilities to make AR systems not only faster but also more precise and realistic. In addition, he says, smartglasses and other wearables need to become more user-friendly. Better sensors and software that can map environments in 3-D are needed as well.
“A lot of building blocks are still to be developed to drive this new wave of innovation,” Inbar says. “There’s an opportunity to become a leader in this space and take a big chunk of the market.”
This article appears in the December 2016 print issue as “Investing in an Augmented World.”
This article is part of our December 2016 special issue on digital senses.