At the start of this research I set out to explore how next generation sensor technology could enable development of a new ecosystem for marketing, advertising and consumer participation in AR/VR. The basis for taking this perspective grew out of my 30 year career in the integrated circuit sensor industry and parallel experiences with the developments in digital marketing over this same time span. My sensor development experiences have included:
- A presentation from MIT researchers in the 1980’s on early MEMs IC concepts prior to any serious attempts at commercialization
- Seeing first-hand the development of solid state 3 axis magnetometer
- Creating marketing campaigns for early MEMs gyroscopes and accelerometers.
- Creating marketing campaigns for Time of Flight image sensors in 2007
- Technical development involvement in next generation Time of Flight image sensors
- Technical development involvement in solid state LIDAR technologies
In parallel with a career at the component end of the sensor technology supply chain, I worked in technical marketing and marketing communications roles for electronics technology businesses. The major advancements I observed were:
- The birth and growth of the Internet.
- World Wide Web and digital marketing.
- Decline of print media as the focus for marketing campaigns.
- The creation and subsequent influence of social media marketing, blogging and digital video on business and technical marketing.
- The progression from land line to cellular to smart phones and the impact on business and society.
The combination of my personal experiences of these parallel advancements brings a profound anticipation of the next big thing in technology to influence principles of marketing. I theorize that AR/VR will be that next big thing because the development in sensing technology is poised to support the necessary hardware capabilities to facilitate it. In the course of researching the historical roots of VR and AR it became clear that each successive enhancement had been limited by the available technology for implementing the concept. However, the premise of creating a realistic illusion of being immersed in an experience still motivated the innovators onward, even if the applicable use cases at each step were limited to niche products and applications. This is similar to the advancement of computers from room sized vacuum tube machines to pocket sized smartphones with thousands of times the computer power. The advancements in solid state electronics enabled smaller and more capable computers. It was not obvious, at the time, that individuals should have any need of a powerful computer. However, when these shrinking computers were available to early adopters, who developed software like spreadsheets, email and games, then personal computers became an essential tool in every home.
Integrative Question Considerations
The original question posed was:
“How could next generation sensor technology enable a new ecosystem for marketing, advertising and consumer participation to develop in the augmented and virtual reality fields?”
The digital marketing trends and ongoing announcements by leading social media and technology companies are strong indications VR is anticipated to be on the cusp of widespread adoption. It is clear that Virtual Reality and, in a later stage, Augmented Reality are creating that new ecosystem and that digital marketing professionals are eagerly testing content and advertising models to leverage the deep psychological engagement possible with VR content. Rapidly evolving IC sensor technologies are playing a crucial role in delivering a positive user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) experience for VR and AR users. The road to AR in particular will depend strongly on availability of a rapidly evolving new class of sensors able to digitally capture the 3D data representing the real time scene presented to the AR user. This technology will need to continue to evolve in performance and price as consumer expectations progress beyond initial novelty approval to critical evaluation when applied in “mission critical” situations of business and personal life. The exact scope of the eventual ecosystem is yet to be truly known.
The VR and AR Ecosystem and Consumer Response
The use of Tethered Fully Immersive VR headsets as a gaming platform is well established and meets many consumers’ expectations. The clear winner for hardware and software ecosystem is not yet determined though. Sony’s PlaystationVR headset joined to its popular Playstation console has landed in an enviable position where its console supports high quality VR content and the companion VR headset achieves best in class technical performance (Robertson, 2016). This makes for an easy to use and accessible consumer-ready combination not yet realized by competitors in this gaming and 360° viewing space.
Most others, such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive must be connected to a PC with sufficient graphics rendering capability and then the user takes responsibility for loading and running content from the PC’s Operating System. This is reflected in sales numbers from IDC which show Sony shipping 429,000 units in the first quarter of 2017 as compared to the next nearest Tethered Immersive Headset competitor, HTC, which shipped less than half of that amount during the same period. (Sag, 2017, IDC Worldwide Headset Tracker) Personal entertainment presently dominates the use of this category with side uses being found in therapeutic practice, training, education and the ever-present Internet innovator, pornography. Not surprisingly pornography has already brought innovation in the form of synchronized and digitally linked haptic devices to the VR mainstream. While gaming VR is still working out handheld controllers to use in game play, the porn industry is racing along with its own racy accessories aimed at satisfying its clientele’s lust for immersive experiences.
Facebook’s Oculus grabbed early industry attention with its display quality and user comfort. The complaints around early VR headset’s propensity for blurriness, headaches and nausea inducing motion sickness were largely absent from Oculus’ well engineered product. The rapid growth of Oculus since 2012 led to their being acquired by Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, recently made public his vision for the future of social media as a VR and AR centered. Instead of just sharing curated snippets of our lives with our friends the VR and AR future of social media will have us hanging out and catching up socially in our own private VR worlds among other activities (Zuckerberg, 2017, @10’30”). The present day marketing models are heavily invested in social media, with the leading social media platform pledging their commitment to VR as a central strategy the marketing community is challenged to stay present in this developing ecosystem.
Education also holds a huge potential for this technology. As dramatic as personal computers and tablet computer use in classrooms has grown, the possible impact of VR and AR to bring lessons on science, history, geography, reading, math cannot be underestimated. The power of immersive experiences to engage attention and draw out student’s natural curiosity is profound for its potential benefits. The ability for students to engage in experiential learning safely while in the classroom will be realized through VR and AR technology. It will be possible for a science teacher to lead her students into a virtual tornado and explain the principles at work inside these powerful weather systems. With a few motions the teacher can show the air currents, thermal gradients and the way pressure in the eye of the tornado causes objects to be sucked up into the vortex. The use of VR will undoubtedly be gaining traction rapidly as system prices decline and content creators shift their attention to the education related markets. The familiarity and enjoyment of the technology will spill over into student’s homes and new opportunities will exist for marketers to sponsor educational content directly or to provide discrete product placements into virtual lessons. How much will marketers pay to have the soda machine sucked up into the tornado be branded “Red Bull” or “Monster”?
Mobile Immersive VR headsets, exemplified by Samsung’s GearVR or LG’s LG360VR, have the fastest adoption rates at present. IDC reports GearVR sales for first quarter of 207 at 489,500 units or nearly 22% share of market. It is a clear indication that allowing for dual use of smartphone technology to experience VR content, even though the quality is less than a dedicated unit can serve, is still very appealing to consumers. There is a clear value proposition to consumers for this category of VR hardware. Is it possible that the progression in smartphone computing power and display resolution will close the gap sufficiently to render dedicated headsets to a small segment of the market? It’s not only possible but likely as Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) technology continues to improve and smartphone computing power is advancing rapidly also. Dedicated headset can retain a computing and graphics rendering advantage which will retain the loyalty of dedicated gamers, however the majority of the buying public are likely to find Mobile Immersive Headset technology “good enough”.
Tethered AR Headsets enable the wearer to experience digitally created content without being cut off from their In-Real-Life (IRL) experiences. A major proponent of this technology is Microsoft. Their promotion of “Mixed Reality” may be an effort to rebrand “augmented reality” to something more obvious to the lay person. Regardless the label “Mixed Reality is synonymous with augmented reality. Microsoft, with this effort, looks poised to market to the business world. Tethered headsets may well be a lead in to Mobile AR headsets, which currently sell for a premium over tethered systems. Acer, Asus, Dell, HP and Lenovo have either introduced or announced intent to introduce devices supporting Microsoft’s Mixed Reality standard. Bringing this many established computer and tech peripheral companies together around a common vision is not done by launching a Kickstarter campaign with blind faith in a lone inventor’s vision. It is only done with exhaustive market research, consumer analysis, research and development investments and a commitment to serve a large and lucrative market. This level of capital investment indicates a strong positive outlook on the potential return-on-investment (ROI) of AR technology and Microsoft’s Mixed Reality platform. Microsoft has traditionally targeted business use cases and in this effort it is again the case. Their promotional material focuses on productivity enhancing uses in manufacturing, design, office automation, communications and training. Deployment AR technology to office workers in a manner similar to the deployment of browsers on office worker’s desktop computers brings every probability that advertising opportunities will follow.
Mobile AR appears likely to be the platform to win widespread consumer adoption and extend use cases to business productivity application. Microsoft is leading the competition in this area with its Hololens product and Merged/Mixed Reality Headsets. The reliance on advances in next generation sensing technology is evident in the construction of Hololens and other comparable devices like the Avegant Glyph. Both represent early stage developments and yet both articulate a vision of the ideal consumer friendly product. The ability to engage with virtual content while remaining aware of or incorporating seamlessly the users’ immediate surroundings opens up the widest possible consumer audience. In the workplace, these devices could replace our screens on our desks with a headset capable of projecting any size screen we want or need with the added benefit of instant in person conferencing with a shared screen or shared computer objects. Need to review a part design with your supplier in another country? Just connect via the Internet and your Microsoft AR headsets, bring up the 3D CAD model and walk through the design proposal together, maybe adjust or change features and check the fit with other parts then fill out an order and get on to the next project. It may be that in a few short years, offices will no longer have a need for LCD screens anywhere and the idea of meeting in a conference room will seem as quaint as web cams on laptops.
Another likely scenario is that existing mobile phone hardware will adopt these sensor technologie and deliver non-immersive but still augmented or merged reality features to existing use cases, like navigation. The ASUS Zenphone and Lenovo Phab2 Pro discussed previously are representative of this potentially broad market. Perhaps these different versions of augmented reality will coexist indefinitely. It’s certainly the case that an upgrade path via a new smartphone model will be the first VR or AR device many consumers acquire. Once consumers are accustomed to bringing data from the Internet into the real world graphically and in real time, the notion of looking at a dot on the map to see where she is located will seem as clunky as a road atlas. The opportunity to point a smartphone at a scene and see relevant facts overlaid graphically will surely transform tourism in ways not yet imagined. Marketers will be lining up to include their relevant content into these helpful applications in ways similar to current navigation platform’s listings for businesses of interest in a geographic location.
Another already existing use case being promoted by Lowe’s, IKEA and Mayfair is for interior decorating and remodeling. A consumer can simply point her AR equipped smartphone at her living room or bedroom then capture the dimensions and surfaces. With a few swipes a consumer can place a new dresser or couch in the room, move it to this or that location digitally, change the colors or finishes or fabrics and when satisfied, place your order, with confidence that the piece will fit and look just like you wanted. The possibilities become expansive when handheld assistants can sense the surroundings in three dimensions and with color images at megapixel resolution. Shopping for clothing, shoes, household goods becomes an opportunity for advertisers to track metadata and offer suggestions of merchandise targeted to individual consumer’s AR behavior.
The current generation of SLAM sensor technology is already demonstrating its impact in the performance apps from Lowe’s and Mayfair for the few with the hardware capable of meeting the Google Tango platform standard. Future developments will increase the sensing range and the accuracy of reproducing surfaces and objects with improved fidelity. Much like the first cell phone cameras were seen as a novelty and dismissed from consideration for use by knowledgeable photographers, the current generation of SLAM technology is adequate and future developments will be capable of supporting innovations yet to be imagined. Developing a volume market with early AR smartphones like Zenphone and Phab2 Pro are anticipated to create a virtuous cycle of innovation. This will in turn justify the business case for continued research, development and refinement in sensor hardware and associated signal processing algorithms. Augmented reality sensing is certainly on a path that will only improve the user experience. The brands establishing leadership positions with useful, engaging AR/VR apps which improve consumer’s experiences will more solidly cement their customer’s loyalties.
In this discussion, it is worth mentioning the rapid advances in haptic feedback. As sensors provide the computer with feedback on the real world, haptics provide the user with feedback on the digital world. When a user wishes to touch or handle an object it is more natural if the hands and fingers can be stimulated to recreate the sense of touch. One new type uses arrays of ultrasonic transducers to stimulate skin and create the sensations of touch or even heat. Ultrahaptics promises to more fully engage the user in immersive experiences. Virtual objects will not only look realistic but also feel realistic to our sense of touch (Ultrahaptics, n.d.). Haptic suits will likewise create tactile and thermal experiences in sync with VR content. Some suits also provide full body tracking to accurately represent the users VR avatar, mimicking all motions and actions seamlessly. Early prototypes and concepts are being rapidly prepared for consumer purchase. New walking and running simulators promise to allow the user to really get active in their VR worlds. These are high tech versions of treadmills which allow users to walk or run and change direction at will. One works on the “hamster ball” principle with the user inside and the ball able to spin endlessly in any direction (Oscillada, 2015).