Urban Games, Storytelling with Augmented Reality, The Big ARNY, and “Inside AR:” Talking with Thomas Alt, Metaio

Mon, Sep 27, 2010


Today Metaio is holding Inside AR in Munich, Germany.   Metaio (the picture above shows Metaio co-founders Thomas Alt and Peter Meier), is behind some of the best known commercial and industrial AR experiences of recent years.  But as important as the many AR projects they have executed are the AR tools that Metaio has made available to developers.  Metaio’s AR products and tools have played an important role in bringing AR to a wider public, and given many developers the opportunity to explore AR.

Inside AR is a great opportunity to see what these AR pioneers  will be up to in the coming months.   I could not make it to Munich this year.  But, fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk with Thomas Alt, recently.   In this conversation – see below, I got a chance to discuss what was going on inside AR with Metaio.

The Fall season is always jam packed with great events, and I wish I could be in two places at once.  But this week, I will be in my home town, NYC, attending Web 2.0 Expo which, reflecting the heat in the NYC tech community, is a sold out event with a very exciting schedule this year (more on some of the presentations that I will be attending later in this post).  If you missed out on tickets to Web 2.0 Expo, all Keynotes will be Streamed Live: TUES 9/28 to THURS 9/30, and keep your eye on @w2e and #w2e on twitter.

Meanwhile, I am missing Inside AR, which had some great speakers lined up, including fellow New Yorker, John Swords, partner and Ringleader at  Hopefully, Swords will share his experiences at next month’s ARNY Meetup which will be “joining forces with another vibrant community – NY Gaming – for an unforgettable night of Augmented Reality Games” on Tuesday, Oct 19th, 6:30 PM at AOL Ventures in New York, NY.

At the most recent ARNY @swords gave a brilliant talk on the possibilities for AR Game development on the newly available opensource Parrot ARDrone platform.  It was great to hear from social game guru @swords on his plans for Parrot ARDrone games, and more.  The picture below of an ARDrone camera view is from John Swords Flickr set.  Swords was flying it inside his garage because the winds outside were too strong.


Also, I kicked off what will hopefully be an ongoing discussion on, “Story Telling with AR and the Big ARNY a collaborative AR Game for NY,” with a few slides.  I have opened up the presentation document for collaboration, so please ping me if you would like to be added as a contributor/editor, and are interested in getting involved.

Ori Inbar, CEO and co-founder of Ogmento, Games Alfresco, ARNY and my co-chair on Augmented Reality Event 2010, suggested The Big ARNY – A Collaborative AR Game Development Project modelled after A Swarm of Angels last year at the First ARNY Meetup – so let’s make it happen!  I will be catching up with Ori in October about what Ogmento has been up to since they became the first VC backed AR Game company!

“Games allow us to see each other, for a moment, in a way that living in a city prevents” – Kevin Slavin

I believe that, AR, to get beyond the stage of “interface du jour” needs to offer us new ways to relate to each other and the world around us so that we can actually improve  and deepen our engagement with reality not just create experiences that are primarily optical  (see James Turner’s interview with Kevin Slavin “Reality has a gaming layer” on not letting “the pleasure of a game and the meaning of a game and the experience of a game rest primarily in the optics.“  And see my recent post, Urban Augmented Realities and Social Augmentations that Matter: Talking with Bruce Sterling, Part 2).

Two of the most inspired creators of urban games,  Kevin Slavin and Kati London of Area/Code will be speaking at Web 2.0. Expo tomorrow.   And you can be sure I will be at both these sessions. Loitering on the Motherboard, Kevin Slavin, is 2:35pm Tuesday, 09/28/2010, and Games that Know Where you Live, Kati London – is a keynote that will also be live streamed4:55pm Tuesday, 09/28/2010

Recently Kevin Slavin was interviewed by James Turner, on O’Reilly Radar.   This, Reality has a gaming layar, is a must read piece about a “world where games shape life and life shapes games”  (see @timoreilly). 

Interview with Thomas Alt


Tish Shute: Perhaps you could just start with your background Thomas because I think there’s a lot of newcomers to AR but you are really one of the first movers in commercial AR. How long you’ve been involved in this?

Thomas Alt: Actually I’m an ex-researcher in augmented reality. I started with me actually after getting my master’s work in engineering from the Technical University of Munich working for a big company called Volkswagen. And at that time,1999, we got a research grant for researching how augmented reality could change manufacturing processes in the automobile industry.

And from the research work there, I basically went back to school, did my PhD about augmented reality. And while speaking at a conference, I met Peter Meier who is the co-founder of the company who was also a master’s student writing his thesis about augmented reality. That was in 2002.

And so it really was in the very early days of augmented reality. And both Peter and myself we got really excited about the technology; we saw endless possibilities. We said, ‘OK. Let’s just found a company. We actually founded the company in early 2003 with virtually no money. As a matter of fact the founding capital of the company was 25,000 Euros and this 25,000 Euros were won in a case competition in Germany – a business plan competition.

Tish Shute: So you won 25,000 Euros on this case competition and that’s where Metaio started….

Thomas Alt: Exactly. And to legally found a company in Germany it takes exactly 25,000 Euros so that was the founding capital. We started pretty much like good old SAP started.  It wasn’t in a garage though it was a very small office and we basically built up the business through work, so we don’t have any investors or whatever. Right now we are 66 people located in Munich where our headquarters have been for five years. We have some presence in the US, and we have a venture company in Seoul, South Korea.

Tish Shute: Awesome. I just noticed how fast you’ve been growing. So right now, I’m going to ask a couple of questions about where you see the technology and the emerging industry going.

First, what are the platform of choice for Mobile Augmented Reality at the moment?

Thomas Alt: Obviously in the cellphone hardware space there’s a fierce competition going on. It’s yet to be defined what will be the prevailing platform right now, obviously it’s the iPhone is big now, right? But Android is catching on very, very fast.

Tish Shute: You have pioneered bringing a cross platform SDK for vision assisted AR to a wide community of developers with Junaio and with your partnership with Kooaba – a visual search company from Europe.

Thomas Alt: Yes, yes, and this is how we would, also in the future like to position ourselves with Junaio.  Junaio will be a platform, a technology platform, which will allow users to do whatever they want to do in augmented reality. The API of Junaio is huge in the sense you can do anything from outdoor gaming, to visual search, to normal, uh, lay out style, you know, find the next burger king a mile away kind of super impositions.

Tish Shute: The only licensing you pay is for unifeye right? When you want to use your tool kit right?

Thomas Alt: Yes and this is how we’re distinguishing it. Junaio is our consumer brand targeting newbie AR developers, with limited programming skills, while the Unifeye platform is really our B to B platform where B to B customers can create their individual AR experiences.

Tish Shute: Yes which is what my friend Patrick O’Shaughnessey, Patched Reality, did for the Ben and Jerry’s app he created using Unifeye.

Thomas Alt: exactly…

Tish Shute: It is a lot of work developing for so different mobile platforms isn’t it. Junaio is on Android and iphone but you havent moved Junaio to Symbian?

Thomas Alt: To be honest with you right now its a matter of priorities we have other things we want to do first. And from analyzing the user base, iphone was a big step Android was a big step and now we are pretty much seeing what is happening next. As you know Nokia going into different directions as far as their smart phone operating system goes, and so on and so forth.  There are also capacity constraints. And right now obviously the most – potentially not the most possible users, but the users most inclined to do AR on a day to day basis are the ones using the iphone and android devices. But obviously there are a lot bigger cellphone manufacturers out there.  But just you know even the mobile web users aren’t as strong as the users on the iphone and android devices?

Tish Shute: So what do you think the iphone 4 has that brought to the AR picture?

Thomas Alt: Very fast camera access, very good for marker recognition. If you go to the Metaio site you’ll find a movie where we show on the iphone 4 app for a real augmented reality Leggo peice – this is something which is very nice

Tish Shute: Yes I see that, yes that is nice, yes, yes very nice. The Unifeye SDK is really putting markerless AR into the mainstream.

Thomas Alt: Yesterday we launched the first, a err very nice shopping… shopping solution for , but that’s completely external.

Tish Shute: Oh yes – the augmented reality shopping for, i was going to ask you about that, because it is the first augmented reality online shopping using natural feature tracking.

Also I am very excited to see the gestural interface, awesome!

The seventeen augmented reality shopping app is a PC experience but are you working on developing gestural interfaces for mobile AR?

Thomas Alt: We are continually pushing the envelope of what’s possible with AR. Gestural interfaces for mobile AR is certainly the next step in taking what we’ve done on the PC and making it more portable by using the mobile platform. One thing to keep in mind here is the limitations of mobile platforms and size of the screen needs to fit and make sense for the user experience.

Tish Shute: I know you started off as an AR researcher (although as you mentioned earlier you have been working in commercial AR and building Metaio for a long while now.

So in addition to how we are progressing towards gestural interfaces for augmented reality, I would like to ask some questions about AR eyewear. We won’t really have hands free AR without eyewear. What is your projection on when we will see consumer AR eyewear? And, Do you have a any comments on those speculating that we will not see AR eyewear go mainstream for 20years?! What is Metaio doing to move eyewear technology along?

Thomas Alt: Well as you know, it’s always, you know on the technological roadmap, and we’re still doing research projects, in our AR research department. We have worked on things like calibrating eyewear for augmented reality. There is some nice development there.

But really, commercially, the whole thing with eyewear has never caught on on a level which would make it a valuable avenue, business avenue, at least for Metaio. So, I guess as an ex-researcher, it’s still a very interesting, a very good technology. And it would definitely change the marketplace radically when available. But as per right now, there are very few commercial applications.

Tish Shute: Are the obstacles to AR eyewear technological obstacles or is it just a question of a a business model. I mean is it realistic to see eyewear in the next 3 to 5 years at a price point affordable to consumers, where you really, truly can have eye tracking? You know, the whole problem there was with virtual reality and eyewear giving people a headache. How far have we come in terms of the technology?

Thomas Alt: Well, it’s not so much technological factors ’cause all fundamental problems are solved. It’s more a rather large corporation, I guess, would have to step up to the plate and say okay, do, let’s get all the state of the art in electronics and develop just a perfect HMD.

Tish Shute: Something Yohan Baillot’s company Simulation 3D is doing at is looking at is hooking up eyewear to smart phones.

Thomas Alt: Yes exactly that would be even better. Metaio has done a strategic move into this HMD space for augmented reality about a year ago by acquiring a bankrupt company. I mean, we had considerable IP around it from our research base but in the long term we still believe in it and we did a move about a year ago in buying what was left over from a bankrupt company including a lot of IP, which basically goes into the direction of mobile augmented reality but also mobile augmented reality in connection with head mounted displays.

There’s actually a press release about this but that’s about a year ago…

I know that the whole HMD thing… I mean, I’ve seen companies come and go. Metaio has worked previously, very closely, with Microvision of Seattle. We have worked with a German company, doing HMDs and we have worked with Vuzix.  We are still working with Vuzix, so we’re still consider it very valuable.  But right now, I mean, it’s just not a big part of our commercial pipeline, to put it that way.

Tish Shute: It was interesting what Bruce Sterling said in his keynote at ARE 2010.  He actually made a strong case for why smart phone augmented reality may be more interesting because it’s less immersive. I mean, he raised the question of the fact that if you really truly had AR eyewear and HMDs you’d re-enter the world of virtual reality or as he called it AR’s Gothic step sister VR would rise from the grave….

Thomas Alt: Yeah, well, that’s a cultural or even a philosophical question and we have discussed it a lot, especially in the industrial domain. Also will the deployment of HMDs come about from end consumers using it in their spare time, or from professional users using the idea in their work time?

Tish Shute: Do you think it surprised people who have been working in augmented reality research how much people have engaged with the idea of smart phones as the mediating device for AR, and that rather than having the always on experience that eyewear would give us, we use smart phones as a magic lens of a smart phone when we need to or want to. Some people were skeptical that anyone would want to hold up a little window to look at augmentations of the world – a magic lens. I mean, it wasn’t self-evident that that would be an experience people enjoyed, and it turns out that it was.

Thomas Alt: That’s actually a very good analogy. And also in my view, I mean, certain behaviors just change also, right? I mean, this is exactly what Apple’s trying with the iPad, right? You’re taking the iPad, and all of the sudden you’re not constrained to a laptop or whatever. And it’s truly a companion of the couch, in-bed Web, in the kitchen, and so on and so forth. So digital usage with the iPad, which is a different market, and I’m aware of that but as an example, the iPad has changed our behavior. And obviously, the augmented reality guys are hoping that something similar happens with AR.

Tish Shute: Which of course brings up the question, I’m assuming that some of the next generation of slates/ipads are going to have front and back cameras, GPS, and compass, right?

Thomas Alt: Actually we know that.

Tish Shute: You know that, yes. I assume that you know that, because are you working on some prototypes, and have you got some plans?

Thomas Alt: You have to understand that I cannot talk as I’ve talked as a researcher. It’s the rules, so I have to be a little bit careful about what I say. We very much think that a webpad, or whatever pad, you would want to call it is on some occasions very good device for AR.

Tish Shute: Yeah. But it is an interesting point with holding up a larger device, because you hands aren’t free, but the neat thing about the phone for augmented reality is that you really can do a lot with your thumb, as we’ve found and just the position of the phone. But, how will this work it with the two hands on the larger device?

Thomas Alt: Keep in mind, everyone’s talking about mobile augmented reality, but really where the case for augmented reality, at this point, is the strongest is in the installation business, it’s in the web business… Not necessarily only commercially, but also use case-wise. There are tons of museums out there which are using our augmented reality system in an installation fashion, and to communicate products better, and more efficiently, and so on, and so forth.

So, I know that the hype is clearly on the mobile augmented reality side, but there are many examples augmented reality experiences where holding up a larger device is not a big obstacle.

Tish Shute: Well this brings me to some questions about the future of mobile AR. My interview with Jay Wright focused on how we are now in a new period for AR bringing together computer vision, visual search into a mobile stack that is really optimized for AR. What do you see emerging in mobile AR as we move beyond compass, GPS, camera, accelerometer based AR into markless image-based AR. What will the new use cases and where will we see mainstream users getting in AR. Will AR games be the first mainstream AR experiences?

Thomas Alt: My partner is actually, first of all, one of my best friends, second of all, very emotional, third of all, very intelligent, and he said the other day something I think very valuable in this area. He said, basically think about Mobile Augmented Reality, Thomas. There’s really a very limited number of use cases which you can do if you look at these classical Point and Find applications, ok? But there are almost unlimited number of use cases when Augmented Reality becomes a day to day companion, ok? So what he meant is, ok, I’m looking at my normal day… I’m looking at the city, I’m walking throughout this, I’m coming home, I’m having dinner basically. I can deploy Augmented Reality in a pure POI search fashion perhaps not even once. Ok when I’m travelling it’s a different story, but in an ordinary day I might use a POI search not even once.

But where this ultimately leads, you know, is even in the 15 minutes I’m having breakfast, I’m using AR – looking at the cereal box with my cell phone, I’m taking part in a sweepstakes or whatever. So from that we draw the conclusion that as a general strategy for Junaio, we should basically throw as much technology as possible into Junaio, make it halfway self-explanatory, and just give people the possibility to come up with ideas on how to deploy augmented reality continuously.

We have actually got a creative team from an Art School working on that, and just, you know, with very little programming skills coming up with things you can do with Augmented Reality on a day-to-day level. And it could be a scavenger hunt game, in the city, with monsters flying around, it could be the normal POI routine, it could be marketing purposes, and so on and so forth. And I think that’s really the roadmap, and this is a little bit similar on a more technical level, to what Qualcomm is doing, ’cause they’re floating out possibilities or capabilities I want to call them, and Metaio is doing that, but on a higher level [re the tools] meaning on a Junaio level.

Junaio is a capability platform. It is also a way for Metaio to demonstrate the capabilities of our technology. We will offer all the possibilities for AR and more that we have already demonstrated on PC augmented reality.

Tish Shute: What is the business model for Junaio? Are you encouraging developers to develop business on your platform ?

Thomas Alt: Junaio is our end consumer platform and our business model is similar to the way Google structures its business model. We work with OEMs, content partners, brands, and developers to offer free content to our end users. Where we do charge is on the advertising side, more specifically contextual and location based advertising. At the current stage, we are focused on building the content base, fostering our developer community, but in the near future, we will be introducing advertising channels.

First of all you have to have very good use cases in the platform basically. And then to put a business model on top of that from a technology stand point is not hard – its a pay channel. Its all prepared for this.

Tish Shute: You have quite a broad base as a company don’t you – you do everything from industrial AR, marketing to technology licensing and more?

Thomas Alt: Basically, there’s a lot of things people don’t see us. There is also the Unifeye PC SDK and we have a client base and partners who are sourcing software from us, and we are doing great pieces. I mean the hype of augmented reality is really coming to a peak. There are lots of pieces that are not even talked about any more. China’s GQ magazine launched with AR from Metaio, the biggest AR campaign anywhere – there are a lot of potential readers in China. And um, so that’s our business model… we have our IP, our patents and so on. And on this we can move on onto the mobile platform whenever it’s advisable or feasible.

Tish Shute: Right. Yeah. I mean uh, you’re very fortunate to have this base built on uh, years of developing IP. What are the most important areas of AR that Metaio holds IP and patents in, in your view?

Thomas Alt: there’s sleepless nights in that too…

So far we’re extremely excited about what’s going on with Junaio, it’s one of our big, big success stories. But we are sensible and trying to experiment because, you know, analogies from the past won’t really work in my view for Augmented Reality in a sense, that, you know, you better bring for a new system to fly, for a new technology to fly, you better bring a very concrete use case to the table, ok? And a well-defined use case. And we are, right now, with Junaio, in a state where we are checking out what could be such a very defined use case.

Tish Shute: So how many users does Junaio have now?

Thomas Alt: Let’s put it that way, we are, especially in the last 2 months, we are very satisfied. But we are not disclosing that, because users, and we’re seeing that from the competitive landscape, always needs 1 page of description what exactly a user is.

You understand what I’m saying? So this is why, ’cause we don’t want to up or downplay things, we are very careful saying, with users. Because I mean we have people who are actually also commercially very interested in Junaio…  We go through with them and discuss what exactly a user is. Cause there’s more then…a download is not a user. An app or something on your phone is not a user, basically, in my opinion.

Tish Shute: I am still waiting to see someone do something with AR and the Four Square API, or now the Facebook Places API. Do you see an interesting potential in the marriage of the rapidly emerging location based social networking space and augmented reality?

Thomas Alt: Definitely. Augmented reality offers a way for users to find information around them easily. Adding in the social networking component such as geo-tagging, rating, commenting can enhance the user experience and create engagement beyond just viewing the information. For example, within junaio, an average user can create their own personal channel and geo-tag photos or leave text messages at different locations. They can create a virtual tour of San Francisco and share it with their friends. By connecting the social side with good content, the augmented reality experience becomes more fun and interactive.

Tish Shute: And, of course, there’s the Junaio API. Are you beginning to see developers use that?

Thomas Alt: Yeah exactly, I mean if you go to, you can get a login, you have an API description. And the way it works is, that you bascially set up a call, which contains the information you would like to have in your individual channel. You submit it to us, it will get checked for profanity and other things, basically. And then we admit it to Junaio basically. The API is huge.   You can also use Junaio indoors.

This is very relevant. And there’s a tool chain for that, and so on and so forth. You can do mission-based search with Junaio. It’s in there, it’s called Junaio Glue. And there will be another very interesting feature coming up in a couple of weeks. And you can just do it, you can do a scavenger hunt, a game, normal POI search, and so on and so forth. And it’s all active. And that’s, what’s sometimes difficult for us to communicate, is it’s really a capabilities platform, but on the other hand it’s obviously very good to developers. And I mean on the developers side there’s huge interest.

categories: Android, Augmented Reality, digital public space, Instrumenting the World, internet of things, iphone, mobile augmented reality, mobile meets social, Mobile Reality, new urbanism, open source, ubiquitous computing, Web 2.0, Web Meets World
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