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Augmented reality can save the idea of 3-D experiences

Depth cameras with integrated AR will drive the creation of the first significant new product category the tech world has seen in some time: Augmented-reality headsets.

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A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

The concept of 3-D has been an exciting one that the tech industry has arguably been chasing since the first gimmicky 3-D movies of the 1950s. About five years ago, it was hyped at CES and elsewhere as the next big thing.

3-D was supposed to be the saving grace of a supposedly dying category, driving a new level of engagement and involvement with media content. Alas, it was not to be, and 3-D TV sets and movies remain little more than a footnote in entertainment history.

Not surprisingly, many people gave up on 3-D overall as a result of this market failure, viewing the technology as little more than a gimmick.

However, we’re on the verge of a new type of 3-D: One that serves as the baseline for augmented-reality experiences and that I believe will finally deliver on the promise of what many people felt 3-D could potentially offer.

The key difference is that, instead of trying to force a 3-D world onto a 2-D viewing plane, the next-generation 3-D enables the viewing of 3-D objects in our naturally three-dimensional world. Specifically, I’m referring to the combination of 3-D cameras that can see and “understand” objects in the real world as being three-dimensional, along with 3-D graphics that can be rendered and overlaid on this real-world view in a natural (and compelling) way.

In other words, it’s a combination of 3-D input and output, instead of just viewing an artificially rendered 3-D output. While that difference may sound somewhat subtle in theory, in practice it’s enormous. And it’s at the very heart of what augmented reality is all about.

From the simple but ongoing popularity of Pokémon Go, through the first Google Tango-capable phone (Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro), into notebooks equipped with 3-D cameras, and ultimately leading to the hotly rumored next-generation iPhone (whether that turns out to be iPhone 8 or 10 or something completely different remains to be seen), integrating 3-D depth cameras with high-quality digital graphics into a seamless augmented-reality experience is clearly the future of personal computing.

The ability to have objects, data and, ultimately, intelligence injected into our literal view of the world is one of the most intellectually and physically compelling examples of how computing can improve our lives that has popped up in some time. Yet that’s exactly what this new version of augmented 3-D reality can bring.

Of course, arguably, Microsoft HoloLens was the first commercially available product to deliver on this vision. To this day, for those who have been fortunate enough to experience it, the technology, capabilities and opportunities that HoloLens enables are truly awe-inspiring. If Magic Leap moves its rumored AR headset beyond vaporware/fake demoware into a real product, then perhaps it, too, will demonstrate the undeniably compelling technological vision that augmented reality represents.

The key point, however, is that the integration of 3-D digital objects into our three-dimensional world is an incredibly powerful combination that will bring computing overall, and smartphones in particular, to a new level of capability, usefulness and, well, just plain coolness. It will also drive the creation of the first significant new product category that the tech world has seen in some time: Augmented-reality headsets.

To be fair, initial shipment numbers for these AR headsets will likely be very small, due to costs, bulky sizes and other limitations, but the degree of unique usefulness that they will offer will eventually make them a mainstream item.

The key technology that will enable this to happen are depth cameras. Intel was quick to recognize their importance, and built a line of RealSense cameras that were initially designed for notebooks to do facial recognition several years back. With Tango, Google brought these types of cameras to smartphones. And as mentioned, Apple is rumored to be bringing these to the next-generation iPhone in order to make its first stab at augmented reality.

The experience requires much more than just hardware, however, and that’s where the prospect of Apple doing some of its user-interface software magic with depth cameras and AR could prove to be very interesting.

However, only with the current and future iterations of this technology tightly woven into the enablement of augmented reality will the industry be able to bring the kind of impact that many always hoped 3-D could have.

Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of Technalysis Research LLC, a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. Reach him @bobodtech.

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