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AWE XR – The Metaverse is Here!

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Last week I was fortunate enough to travel again for the first time in several years (thanks to COVID restrictions finally easing up), and decided to make my way down to Palo Alto/Santa Clara for the semi-annual Augmented World Expo.  The consensus from the show was that the Metaverse has arrived, is here to stay, and now is the time for exponential growth.  After many conversations with those affluent in the scene, there was agreement that the metaverse is now born (thanks Zuck), but also that it is still in its very early days. I believe we are entering the next phase of technology evolution, and whether that is coined the “metaverse” or something else, the same principles will influence it.  Emerging technology aims to assist us in our everyday life and make our day-to-day experience better.

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The opening keynote on the “metaverse” from Ori Inbar

The show made for some great networking and even allowed me to make some great connections to those in the XR space.  While we are predominately a virtual reality company it was still good to meet those in the industry, although I would say that after the show it felt like it was mostly focused on augmented reality applications, software and technology.    Still, it was great to see how many demos/platforms are using XR technology for positive health-related ailments, whether that be distraction simulations for pain relief/management or making PTSD therapy more effective.  Another extremely innovative company was CareAR, which makes expertise easily available and accessible instantly for users through remote AR and AI interactions.  This has a ton of real-world applicability for on-the-job training or remote worker assistance and I can see this as one of the main uses of AR in the enterprise world in the coming years.

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The AWE XR show had a great turnout and it was great to see so many XR experiences being used by big brands like Boeing, Kohler, Mayo Clinic, and Disney just to name a few.  The talks were informative and it was great to see how many innovative ideas were being spread around the show.  There were many demos in the expo hall that had widespread appeal, but the most fascinating part of it was that the metaverse will be appealing to more than just our visual sense.  The technology is spreading to all of our senses and that was made apparent by how many startups featured new technology to enhance experiences in XR.

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Niantic had one of the biggest booths at the show – not surprising given their recent round of $300m

Touch: HaptX was leading the way with their new DK2 gloves allowing a user to feel the sense of touch, which enabled them to capture the Best in Show award from AWE.  They had a demo that allowed me to feel raindrops falling on my hand, which was pretty surreal.  They achieve this feat using compressed air that is fed onto the skin using ultra-tiny tubes that are mere millimetres apart.

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Another great piece of hardware on the touch spectrum was the Tact Suit from bHaptics — allowing users to feel feedback on their body during in-headset simulations.

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Smell: OVR’s technology had an accessory that enabled scent in an experience.  In the simulation I demoed I was able to smell wood burning from a campfire for example.  I was also able to smell a virtual rose, which I thought wouldn’t be accurate at first, but in practice, it was actually quite pleasant. In another demo I watched someone roast a marshmallow over an open fire and watched their jaw drop in amazement at the experience.  This is definitely interesting technology to watch and something I think would have real-world appeal for some of the work we are doing at Reality Well.

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Vision: This category has the most interest to me, especially as a VR company. Unsurprisingly Varjo has the best-in-show demo with their flight simulator on the XR-3 headset — offering photorealistic visuals with a fairly wide FOV at 115° (although it’s a $7000 device so keep that in mind). The headset also featured LIDAR and stereo RGB video pass-through that made for an extremely high-fidelity merging of the virtual and augmented worlds.  The simulator felt almost real, partly due to the resolution of the headset matching the human eyes in the fovea (the center FOV where human acuity is at its peak).

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Out of all the senses, I think visual aesthetic still has the most impact here (obviously) however it will be interesting to see how the other senses get incorporated into the technology in the coming decade.  Perhaps we will have some form of taste simulated in the future, or even go past the 5 traditional senses and start to have simulators that affect movement/balance in a vestibular sense.

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Another interesting aspect of the visual aesthetic was AR devices continuing their improvement.  While I don’t feel it is quite there yet from a functionality perspective the technology will continue to improve until our Metaverse is completely immersive.  I was able to try quite a few augmented reality headsets at the show, but the best one that stood out to me the most was the Lenovo ThinkReality A3 (pictured aside).

The A3 smart glasses are built for enterprise and allow for a number of configurations in order to customize their style, fit and overall functionality.    As the technology evolves I can see these being used more for engineers in order to pull schematics or other technical information on the fly while working.  The only downside with these smart glasses is that the field of view (FOV) just isn’t there yet for me.  It will take a few more quantum leaps, or perhaps Apple entering the market, for the smart glasses sector to have real-world functionality that makes sense.

I’d say the leader in the space is still the Hololens 2 in terms of functionality, adoption and overall technological prowess; although Magic Leap 2 has recently come onto the market and it will be interesting to see how the adoption of their device picks up given the fact that they have raised around $3.5 billion to date!

Overall the AWE XR show was intriguing, but I would have liked to see more VR-based technology featured, or use cases around VR training applications.  It is still very early days for the XR space and the Metaverse as a whole, it will take a lot more user adoption as I feel most people still aren’t looking at the technology as relevant and useful for use in everyday life.

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