Augmented Reality Entrepreneurship: Natural Evolution or Intelligent Design?

In his recent sermon to the augmented reality community, Bruce Sterling, envisaged the dawn of the AR industry.

He talked about things to avoid (magic) and things to embrace (style). He projected the inevitable: as multiple new AR companies give birth and mature – there will come a time of consolidation. We have seen this phenomenon  occurring in many industries before: after going through excruciating pain of the early stage, some companies survive and others go belly up. Among the surviving companies we typically see a consolidation process including mergers and acquisitions.

It is called Natural Evolution, and is viewed by many as a healthy process. Weeding out the weak and letting the strong survive. Hey, after all it turned out well for humans (that’s what some of us think).

On the flip side, that process is far from being the most effective. Significant amounts of investment go to waste, great talent get burned out, and many truly useful products get buried along the path.

So, yes, we could put our blood and sweat, grind through the early stage pain or…we could consider an alternative approach. Dare I say Intelligent Design?

Don’t get alarmed, I am not thinking about a divine intervention…


I am talking about Collaboration.

I should have called it Collaborative Design but that would have taken the punch out of the title, right?

Humor me for a moment and imagine the following scenario (you may close your eyes if it helps…):

A dozen young and ambitious pre-funded AR start ups meet to discuss how to join forces. They devise a collaborative plan that embraces an unmatched pool of talent covering all aspects of a successful company; they create an invincible business plan; they land a significant investment that offers the investing entities a much lower risk. They accelerate the delivery of products and services that work and delight users.

The biggest winners of this approach are naturally – the users.

They get what they want sooner, better, probably cheaper, and with a long term assurance for continuity.

How would this work?

Focus is probably the #1 trait entrepreneurs tend to attribute to the success of all – but especially young – companies. How do you maintain focus when you glue together different entities with different goals?

Definitely not an easy task. Especially when PEOPLE are involved (people tend to have issues and egos).

Federation is an approach that has proven to work in other domains. Each entity has its own leadership, goals, expertise and dedicated funds – and they all share a greater set of leadership, goals, expertise…and funds.

Many other difficulties and concerns will arise: How do you make decisions in such an organization? How do you know who to include prior to proven success? How do you avoid becoming an evil monopoly?

Smarter people than yours truly will have to take a stab at answering these questions. But once we can agree on the following guiding principle I think we’ll be well on our way. The principle is simply sharing a true passion for bringing augmented reality to the world while focusing on the user.

This is simple but powerful.

As Bernard Baruch, a leading banker and financier for much of this century said:

You don’t have to blow out the other fellow’s light to let your own shine.

Some will say it’s naive thinking. Others will say it’s revolutionary.
My friend Robert Rice joked that one day, in 10 years, MBA students will investigate this seemingly crazy initiative as a case study for alternative approaches to nurturing a successful industry…

Is it possible at all?

I truly believe it is. Every day I make an effort to walk the talk.

Robert and I – along with 8 AR companies – have founded The AR consortium as a step towards collaboration.

The timing is critical, though. This scenario is only plausible as long as the AR industry is still small as it is today (to my opinion it hasn’t even given birth yet.)

If you do believe in this approach, now is the time to act.

What will YOU do next?


This post is largely inspired by the book Coopetition which changed my view of business.

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17 Responses

  1. This is exactly the sort of thing I hope to engage in at ISMAR next month.

  2. We absolutely HAVE to work together to get the best end result for the users.
    There is certainly enough Pie for everyone, and the better the end result is, the more pie there will be anyway.

    By working together, specifically, we need an AR solution that lets the user see AR data from multiple sources at the same time. Local and Online, Public and Private.

    We are at a critical stage here, and I’m really quite worried we will end up with bunchs of impressive….but technicaly incompitible products.
    The internet/web is -not- a good analogy when it comes to AR interface design.
    We dont want Tabs of information, we want layers.
    We want to be able to flick on/off as many as we want, and be in full controll over how we see each.

    There will need to be collaboration to reach this “ar photoshop” like goal.

    Ive published my own personal suggestions…pointing to GoogleWave mostly at the moment. (Which is, I might point out, also a Federation)

  3. I think its great that the group of you are working together, although (to poke a little fun at the overblown wording of your article), I find the idea the MBA’s will care about this in ten years somewhat amusing. Competitors teaming up to set standards is not exactly new; companies small and large have been involved in IEFT and other open standards work for a long time.

    If you truly care about the future of AR, you would be casting a wider net. There are large numbers of researchers (in universities, at military and industrial research labs, and at large companies like all the former Arvika members, to name a few) that are not included; from an outsiders view, the VAST MAJORITY of people who (a) care about AR, and (b) have substantial experience with the technology, how to leverage it and what pitfalls to avoid, are not involved (t-immersion is really an outlier in the list, having been around for a while; some others, like metaio, have members with significant experience, too).

    I say this because the one thing you all share is a need and desire to make money, and make it soon; that’s great, and is often a driver of innovation, but a group of folks who are small and in need of revenue, getting together to “set standards,” is not likely to result in the kind of “user oriented benefit” you claim, or in robust long-term architectures and standards; this is not meant to be insulting, but rather an observation on the nature of these companies and their likely near term focus.

    Fortunately, there are others who are also working on these problems, who are unconstrained by the needs for short term revenue. Hopefully, as all of these efforts, great and small, come to light, they will merge and build on each other! Or, perhaps, some will simply disappear. :)

    On the bright side, I do feel that by starting to work together and “make noise” about the issues, you will push the other players to “put up” and move things along. It’s going to be a fun year!

  4. @ Blair – thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Quick response:
    – I shall be eternally grateful to the research community for bringing AR to where it is today, and for educating me personally. And I will continue to rely on this invaluable group for ever and eternity.
    – The AR consortium is by no means THE answer to my cry for collaboration. Just a small step. And it’s not ONLY for startups. Researchers are gradually taking key roles in leading critical discussions defined by the forum.
    – I am dreaming of a true FEDERATION of pre-funded start ups. If indeed this pie in the sky happens – it WILL be new.

    Oh, and regarding the title: titles are supposed to be overblown…;)

    We love you!

  5. I’ve been inspired by thinkers, visionaries, innovators, and science fiction writers since I was very young, and that has ultimately gotten me to where I am today. I’ll be the first to stand up and give credit where it is due…if there wasn’t already an existing body of research and development, white papers, thesis, reports, demos, etc. there wouldn’t be anything to build on.

    However, as Blair points out, many non-commercial entities are not constrained by short term revenue needs, but rather other motivations (publishing, grants, academic accomplishments, peer validation, whatever) and more often than not, tightly focused specialization.

    One of the driving factors for me, and many others on the commercial side of the fence I have talked to, isn’t a burning desire to make money (not a bad thing, mind you) but rather a deep need to create something or experience the things we have dreamed about since we were children. I’m tired of waiting. I still don’t have a flying car, a personal robot, a lunar base on the moon, vacations on mars, cybernetic eye implants (which I could use), and so forth. It takes an entrepreneur to light the fire and get it done, which usually means aggregating knowledge and technology from multiple areas and sources (like the highly valued specialist academics and researchers) to put something together that is commercially viable, useful, practical, and wanted.

    People can argue that the idea for augmented reality goes as far back as 1965 (or even earlier) and you can point out plenty of innovators and breakthroughs over the years, but after decades we still do not have it in hand. It took the game industry to accelerate graphics development and get the cost down to a point where it is usable by the general public. Without the game industry, we would probably still be using monochromatic or 16 or 256 color graphics, while only big business and universities had something more than that. I remember when the University of North Carolina (I could be wrong, foggy memory) had “Pixel Planes” hardware accelerators that cost something like $20,000 a piece.

    In much the same fashion, it is going to be the entrepreneurs building on top of the vast foundation of augmented reality technologies that were created in the academic, military, and industrial sectors to bring all the pieces together and deliver it to the common man. This takes big vision, big bucks, and big cojones to do, and the risks are high. We can’t afford failure, and we can’t simply get a grant for another research project to try again. Yes, we are constrained, and generating revenues is part of that, but not the whole picture. If it was, none of us would be talking about open or extensible standards, free tools, or whatever. The almighty dollar isn’t always the driving factor. Wait another year or so when the “get rich quick” crowd shows up with gazillions of dollars from Silicon Valley for that. Today, it is about innovation and making something grand and exciting, not about making a quick buck.

    Finally, my comment to Ori was meant as I said it, but not in the context that some people have taken it. The emerging AR industry is different from many other industries for a number of reasons…the mass market demand, the rapid adoption and excessive hyping by the media and brands, the convergence of multiple technologies, the increasing acceleration of adoption of new technologies by the mass market, etc. Even when we talk about standards, what we are doing isn’t necessarily new, but we are going about it differently. What would normally be a very highly competitive environment is instead full of conversation, discussion, and idea sharing instead of insular, political, ivory tower, ego-driven, or whatever. None of us want to take 5 or 10 years to come up with a standard or go through the political “democratic committee” farce that can sometimes (not always) occur. We want it now, we don’t want to wait, and we don’t want it overly broad and fat.

    Sure, there are going to be multiple standards and specifications coming out from different areas, and there will be a lot of back and forth, but the important thing is that we (as an industry) are doing it. It will take time and lots of iterations for something to eventually work out, but we don’t feel the need to finish it first and then use it.

    Things are moving too fast as it is. Pandora’s box is open and those with the drive, vision, and ambition are going to do it. And that’s not hot air.

    One last bit…the AR Consortium is not meant to be an AR community, an elitist group, or even a professional association. It is simply an informal group of companies whose primary focus is commercializing augmented reality as best and as quickly as possible. We clearly have a lot of growing to do and a long way to go still. There are plenty of other companies to add, and a vast amount of discussions and work groups to be formed that we will open up to thought leaders, researchers, and professionals (all of which have a vested interest or something to add) but it isn’t going to happen overnight.

    I would welcome someone else starting a great AR community, or a professional association, or something else entirely, but right now, this is an emerging *industry* and there needs to be a forum for communication and discussion amongst the commercial ventures that are out on the battlefield struggling every day to innovate and build.

    Robert Rice

  6. Well said, we certainly need solutions now, not in 5-10 years.
    Theres no harm in having an AR Consortium that “doesn’t include everyone”, providing nothing done now is set in stone. Provided its thinking -now- but planning in a way to leave options open for the future.

    So we can have a system suitable for “nearest 2 meters” style text data, but forward compatible to “nearest 2cm fixed 3D meshs”, when hardware and positioning catchs up.

    Having a system able to progressively adapt to new technologys. GPS, Galllio, or crowd-sourced point-cloud based precise positioning. (a software solution I feel gives us everything we need, even if it is very hard to achieve).

  7. @ori Chuckle … :)

  8. @Robert Your points are well said, mostly. I won’t bother agreeing or disagreeing with most of them specifically (I agree with most, and empathize with even more of them … how’s that? :)

    However, I will react to your broad implication that I would characterize as “research moves slowly and lives in the detached, ego driven, ivory tower; small companies are making it happen”.

    While I agree with you that many research projects have a longer term focus, and many standards have a painfully long growth period, it is also the case that this is not universal. Not all universities are organized as ivory towers, nor force faculty into those molds. Thank god I’m at Georgia Tech, a school that I like to say “is the best school I’d want to be at” since virtually all those above us fit the pointy headed ivory tower model. :) Here, impact (broadly defined) is what’s measured, and collaboration is strongly encouraged.

    Even beyond GT, not all academics and researchers are only interested in the traditional models of impact. Case in point: I wouldn’t be building unpublishable games, nor investing so much time talking to the press, entrepreneurs and VCs if I did not believe strongly in the value of the impact I am having by doing that — and I know others with the same attitude. And I care less and less about the opinions of academics who look down on such activities (and I’m discovering there are many). However, I also don’t have much time for non-academics who look down on us academics (and we all know there are many of those).

    Of course the AR industry is finally taking off; but your implication that this is happening in spite of the folks who’ve been working toward it for years, and somehow the result of the work of just-got-the-bug-in-the-past-few-years entrepreneurs is just plain silly; academic work has moved slowly because the technology wasn’t there (ask Mark and Daniel about the pain of doing software-based AR on mobiles … yuck!), and many many large companies have been pushing AR for years (take a look at my industrial funding list sometime), especially in the chip/telecom/handset areas, but also in the media/advertising/game spaces. Most of them have just been doing it quietly. But some of the products that are enabling you all to do what you are doing is the result of that behind the scenes work.

    What is new is a group of companies (like Ori’s and yours and some others in the consortium, I think) that are doing AR but NOT mostly doing enabling tech; the “big” AR companies right now are the ones providing the tracking, for example. And they are doing very good and valuable work. But, I suspect that in two years time, the “big” AR companies will be doing other things entirely, and the tech companies will still be doing much the same thing (unless they adapt).

    Finally, I would gently point out that, while your comments here are mostly thoughtful and reasonable, the rhetoric by many of the folks in the consortium (in press releases, blog posts, and so on) is not often so. If there is a backlash against AR because of the over hyping that is happening, it will be easy to point fingers. ;)

  9. @Darkflame Nothing will be set in stone by design, of course; what gets used will win (much like the web) and things will evolve over the next years. There are still browser differences, for crying out loud! :)

    But, we don’t even have hardware that provide “nearest 2 meters” and we won’t any time soon. None of the phones I have (Android, iPhone, etc) can get that accuracy out of their GPS (plus Skyhook) devices, and won’t any time soon. Vision-based approaches will clearly be the future, with crowd sourced creation.

    However, there are good solutions to things like adaptivity to error (we’ve written papers on such systems, after all, and the approaches are relatively straightforward). There are good solutions to data organization and layout, too (which others have published). I assume y’all are reading them, taking the good ideas, and ignoring the rest. Right? :)

    There are also very obvious problems that are not being accounted for in anything I’ve seen coming down the pipe.

  10. @Blair

    I generally agree with you, and I do admit to speaking in very general terms at times, with the random bit of hyperbole to make a point.

    I do think there is some disconnect or friction between the academics and the entrepreneurs right now, for various reasons, and I think you and I both touched on that in our posts. However, I think there are definitely fantastic people on both sides of the fence.

    I am definitely interested in seeing how things play out over the next few years, and I expect to see much more technology development and innovation occurring in all circles. There are still plenty of obstacles to overcome and problems to solve…we will all be busy for quite some time.


  11. It seems to me that the biggest disconnect between the academics and the entrepreneurs is that they disagree on how far we are from the finish line. Entrepreneurs have begun sprinting because they think we’re just a year or two away from useful AR applications. Academics have a more skeptical view (read Blair’s recent posts on mobile sensors for examples) and so they are content to keep the same pace they have kept for years.

    Time will tell who is right. My personal notion of where we are in the Big Timeline of Useful AR has slid back a bit over the past year. We’ll see if ISMAR convinces me we’re further along than I think we are as of right now. :)

  12. I think the difference is in order to get usefull AR it has to start hitting consumers and the market place.
    Perfect solutions cant appear without both market feedback and market investment.
    Hardware and software development needs to start feeding back on eachother, such as happened with games/pc hardware.
    Research will always be a foundation, but it cant live in isolation of implementation, and for this subject, that often means “mass” implementation.
    “But, we don’t even have hardware that provide “nearest 2 meters” and we won’t any time soon. None of the phones I have (Android, iPhone, etc) can get that accuracy out of their GPS (plus Skyhook) devices, and won’t any time soon.”

    Really? Oh, I must confess my ignorance there.
    I thought that was hard, but technically possible to achieve if enough satellites were connected.

    I do know Galileo will be accurate down to a meter, but thats a good 4 years away.

    Software based certainly is the way we have to move, probably only using hardware gps to short-list the location down to a more manageable area.

    I do worry, however, that we may not end up with an open point cloud, or other 3d reference. Microsoft is being incredibly slow doing anything useful with Photosynth, and I believe other current (accurate) 3d meshs of citys are all copyrighted/licensed.

    It would be quite a blow for any AR app using software references to need to lisence/subscribe to a data source.

    “. I assume y’all are reading them, taking the good ideas, and ignoring the rest. Right? :)”

    When I see them ;)

    Would be helpfull perhaps if this blog maintained a page or list of them somewhere.

  13. […] the comments’s on Ori Inbar’s post, Augmented Reality Entrepreneurship: Natural Evolution or Intelligent Design?, for  a courteous but spirited discussion on the potential benefits and frictions of the newly […]

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  16. mHm6Jc I’m not easily impressed. . . but that’s impressing me! :)

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