There was a time in the mid-90s when the idea of virtual reality took hold of popular culture. Movies like “Demolition Man,” “Virtuosity,” and “Johnny Mnemonic” all featured virtual worlds in different guises. As the computer made its inexorable rise and people worried about its effect on the world, it seemed realistic that the next frontier would involve creating new electronic worlds to replace the one we were living in currently. But then we got used to the computer and the technology wasn’t there to build these new worlds and the fixation faded, before slowly creeping back in recently.
It is a curve that Brian Mullins, CEO and founder of augmented reality company DAQRI, knows well. His career has mimicked it. In the late 1990s, he worked with the Department of Transport and the US Navy on robotics and early computer visions. But when he stopped doing that for many years the hardware wasn’t there for any new venture to be possible outside of a specialist field.
“Then about time the iPhone 4 came out, I realized that you could do all these far out things with something that we all just have in our pocket,” Mullins says. “So I dropped everything and started DAQRI.”
Mullins still had to face growing pains. He says he imagined starting something that would work like the YouTube of augmented reality, but no one was familiar with the industry and it was hard to generate interest. What he hit upon for DAQRI was a creative tool that would help companies create augmented reality themselves. For example, with one campaign for Lego, if someone scanned an icon in the catalogue with a smartphone or tablet, through their device they could view a lifelike model of the toy that they can move around and view from all sides. The company has done projects like this for everyone from marketing departments, to industrial automation and medical visualization companies.
“It’s four dimensional, justified to the real world. The character comes to life and you can move around it like it’s actually there,” Mullins says.
Our primary interaction point with these virtual creations will remain our phones and tablets. The headset technologies are still not quite there yet, Mullins thinks. The manufacturing isn’t advanced enough, the optical display techniques aren’t sophisticated yet and the field of vision starts at ten feet, when most human sight happens at very close range.
“But what you can do with a tablet or phone today is nothing short of spectacular,” Mullins says. “I credit Google for starting the conversation with Glass. But in spending so much time in making it so you would want to wear it all day, they have taken away from why you’d want to.”
The new development for DAQRI is the release today of its 4D Studio product, which Mullins envisions working for augmented reality as photoshop did for photographers. It walks a user through the entire creative workflow in making augmented reality, requires no knowledge of coding and Mullins thinks anyone with a basic set of computer skills could use it. There’s a strange business sense in making something like this, which he won’t budge from. For a start, the free version of the software has almost all of the same features as the paid version. And even the existence of a tool like this also has the potential to make DAQRI less essential.
After working on 2,000 campaigns in the last handful of years, Mullins says that taking themselves out of the equation is kind of the point. He wants to throw it right open. “Only a small group of brands can afford the services we’ve been offering. People can use this on their own now and create the same quality of experiences,” he says.
As the hardware catches up to what the software can do, the capabilities of augmented reality will inevitable become much more potent. But with this technology in its infancy, Mullins hopes that he can aid in making it more accessible and bring artists and storytellers into the mix to further in its development. He wants it to be more than just a gimmick. “You can’t tell a story with something if it can only be used by developers. We think this can unlock the power of new content creators and fuel more people engaging with it,” he says.
Augmented reality is a cousin of the virtual reality technologies that took our fascination in the 1990s, Mullins says. Initial experiments in virtual reality, replacing the real world, created simulation sickness. People became dizzy and disoriented.
With DAQRI and augmented reality, Mullins is trying to create something to enhance – rather than stand in place of – the real world. “You leave the person in the world they’re living in but enhance it with content that is relevant,” he says. “It is incredibly powerful.”
[image via daqri]