Brian Mullins of daqri: The Man Who Would Democratize AR

 

Brian Mullins is not a man who dreams small.  On his to-do list? Launching a publishing platform on the order of YouTube and WordPress, creating a new mass market for 3D digital models, and democratizing the nascent augmented reality industry so that anyone and everyone can start adding digital content to their physical world.

And that’s just over the next year or two.  After that, he has in mind changing how the entire manufacturing industry operates, and reinventing the educational system by “presenting the sum total of human knowledge in the most effective way possible.”

Brian’s vehicle for achieving these goals is daqri, the Orange County-based AR startup where he is co-founder and CEO.  I got to hear Brian’s team announce daqri at last month’s ARE2011 Conference, and since then I’ve been part of its private beta testing.  I share Brian’s enthusiasm and wonderment about the future of augmented reality, and he kindly agreed to be the subject of Wassom.com’s first posted interview.  I’m publishing it today to coincide with the scheduled public announcement of daqri’s availability and features.

 

We spent some time talking about daqri and what it can do now, which is exciting enough.  But Brian has a long-term vision for the AR industry, and it’s clear that he intends daqri to be relevant for the long haul.

If you haven’t heard of daqri yet, you’re not alone. The company has been “in stealth mode for a year,” Brian says, “and trying to keep a low profile” while the product was under development.”  They wanted to get it right before going public.  “We spent a lot of time building the technology from scratch.  It’s all our own algorithms.” But now the product is ready for prime time.

There are already a lot of exciting AR products and features on the market.  What makes daqri different is that it’s primarily a platform for user-generated AR content, rather than an app designed to present that content in any particular, structured manner.  Instead of partnering with one of the competing AR browsers already on the market, daqri built its own technology from the ground up.  While it’s in an app form today (on iOS and Android), daqri’s long-term strategy is to move into HTML5 working directly within mainsteam browsers like Safari.

“The analogy is to YouTube or WordPress,” says Brian–sites that give individuals the tools and space they need to create and share their own content, and then get out of users’ way. “Before YouTube, nobody had video on their website.  Now you can get the same level of service for home videos as you do for trailers for Hollywood blockbusters. That’s our philosophy for personalizing the AR medium.  If we can engage more creative people by separating the technology from the creative process, they’ll do more with AR than we can even imagine.”

At the moment, daqri relies primarily on QR codes to trigger its digital content.  (Enterprise customers also have the option of combining daqri with their Microsoft Tags and NFC codes.)  They chose the QR platform because it’s already established.  QRs may not be quite as mainstream yet as the old, familiar bar code, but they’re certainly starting to pop up everywhere.  Users, therefore, face “no complicated call to action,” Brian says.  Most smartphone users will see the code, and automatically recognize that they can scan it with a QR reader app to discover the content behind it.

That’s one way that daqri offers value to businesses already incorporating QRs into their packaging and printed materials.  “If you’re going to use really valuable printed space for a QR code,” Brian says, “it should be augmented, too. We think that’s one of the really powerful parts of daqri–that you can use the QR without changing anything.”

But that isn’t to say that it wasn’t a technological feat to get QR codes to work as AR markers.  Most such markers, as I’ve discussed before, consist of thick black lines that are easier for mechanical sensors to discern.  Brian says that it “took a lot of refinement” before their software recognized the level of minute detail that the codes contain.

Still, he’s already looking beyond QR.  One of today’s announcements will be “FastFrame,” daqri’s custom marker generator.  “You just upload the file, we create the marker, and then deliver it,” says Brian. “Then you can print that on your packaging, or poster or whatever, and just make a really cool, really personal augmented reality marker.”  QR codes will still remain part of that process, though, and can be incorporated within the FastFrame.

“We’re [also] working on markerless tracking right now,” he says.  Within next year of two, daqri anticipates using “natural feature tracking to supplement the markers.”  The app would “use the QR code to find the plane, then extend from that plane very easily to find the natural features.”  Ultimately, “we think that’s going to be the bridge to the no-marker transaction.”

To anyone familiar with the industry, it’s no surprise what’s keeping these dreams from becoming an instant reality.  “It’s absolutely the hardware holding us back,” Brian says.  Mechanical vision technology just isn’t where it needs to be in order to bring out AR’s full potential–although there are some exciting products on the horizon (like the demonstration eyewear that Brian’s trying on in the picture below from ARE2011).

So I asked Brian: if you could design the ultimate AR hardware, what would it be?  “To begin with,” he said, “a second camera for every headset.  The ability to triangulate with two cameras makes the algorithms simpler, faster, and more robust–more like the way the human eye does it.”

I’ve argued in this blog and elsewhere that AR won’t gain “mainstream adoption so long as it requires users to hold their video phones out in front of them, or to sit in front of a monitor. When seeing and interacting with virtual objects becomes as easy as looking at them (through eyewear) and touching them (through Minority Report-style handwear), then the potential of AR will begin to be realized.”

“I absolutely agree with you” on those points, Brian said.  “The industry is already moving toward first-person AR, where you’re wearing a head-mounted display.  That technology’s a lot further along than most people realize.”  He cites Apple’s decision to hire the former head of MIT’s wearable computing project as a “really telling acquisition.”  That will “change the way we consume data,” and “move apps into the first-person environment.”  Brian predicts “commercially viable products within the next two years” that are not just expensive toys, but products that are affordable and have “all-day wearability.”

“Gestural interfaces,” moreover, are the “natural way to interact with first-person data.”  And daqri is “working pretty actively on gesturing, both on the mobile screen and in the AR environment.”

Legal issues on the horizon. Since this blog examines emerging AR technologies primarily from a legal perspective, I asked Brian what legal hurdles he sees in the near future.

In the near term, Brian’s concerned mostly with copyright issues.  “3d objects and the images they’re textured with all have copyright associated with them,” he says, “and rights holders need to understand that and be careful.”  Brian sees YouTube’s experience with copyright infringement issues as a model to emulate.  daqri respects the rights of copyright owners, Brian says, and it has a policy and mechanism in place to remove infringing content from its platform.  But Brian also admires what he considers YouTube’s protection of fair use, and its resistance to overly zealous takedown demands.

When it comes to brand protection in AR, Brian hopes to see an evolution in the stereotypical thinking of rights owners. “To a certain extent it’s going to be incumbent on brands to embrace the new medium,” he says. “I think the ones that allow you to remix will have the most success in it.  If I can get a Coca-Cola can in 3d for my AR mashup, that can’s going to get a lot of exposure.”

He chuckled when I mentioned the recent Mashable article called “Who Owns the Advertising Space in an Augmented Reality World?”  “That’s an interesting discussion that needs to be had,” he said, “but it got a lot more attention than it needed.”  In today’s AR environment, you only see the ads if you intentionally pull out your smartphone and look at the space through an AR app. “Ubiquity will change the discussion” once AR eyewear is commonplace.  But even then, Brian has a hard time seeing the harm.  I posed question of what happens if, every time I look at McDonald’s through my AR eyewear, I get coupon for Burger King.  “What’s to stop someone today from putting up a Wendy’s sign in the lot next door to the McDonald’s?” he responded.  All of which will be fascinating questions for we IP lawyers to tackle in the near future.

Besides, Brian added, “the killer apps will be ad-blocked.  Then I won’t see any of that junk when I’m walking around.”

Revolutionizing Industry and Education. daqri is actually Brian’s third company.  His previous venture was in manufacturing, so the factory floor is an environment near and dear to Brian’s heart.

AR “on the factory floor will change the manufactuing industry forever,” he says.  Instructions for how to assemble things and run machinery “will not be language-dependent;” they will be entirely visual.  He cited studies suggesting that productivity would skyrocket in such an environment–a conclusion buttressed by the several examples of industrial AR that were presented at ARE2011.

He also sees the daqri platform as a catalyst for entirely new business models in the 3D digital imaging industry. There are “currently no good outlets to get this content to the consumer,” he says.  Instead, modelers sell B2B, such as by providing objects for video game consoles–files that are too computationally complex for a smartphone. A YouTube-like platform for AR will presumably cause a surge in demand for affordable, consumer-grade 3D models, and therefore to new pricing models and a proliferation of mobile-ready content.  So far, Brian says, these content providers have been receptive to his ideas.  They’re a young industry, and have seen what the movie and recording industries have gone through in adjusting to online, B2C distribution models.

The idea that really fires up Brian’s imagination, however, is AR as the ultimate learning tool.  His favorite example is the scene in The Matrix where Trinity needs to learn how to fly a helicopter.  “She just calls up the instructions,” he recounts, “and they’re delivered to her on the spot.  AR will also deliver instructions to you on the spot.

“AR will become a way to get knowledge in people’s heads much faster than any other way that we’ve done education,” Brian says.   “It could possibly allow the sum total of human knoweldge to be presented in the most effective way possible.  Everybody should have access to that.”  He draws inspiration on this point from his favorite books, Daniel Suarez’s novels Daemon and Freedom.  Without spoiling the plot, Brian says that the problem of how to preserve and communicate knowledge in exactly that way is a key element of the books.  (Brian is not the first AR expert to recommend these books to me.  The audio version of Daemon is therefore next in my Audible queue.)

Nevertheless, Brian doesn’t advocate throwing out all your physical textbooks. “We think AR brings relevancy back to print.  When that print can come to life, then you can experience it in AR and out of AR as well”–a concept captured brilliantly by this concept video by artist Sorin Voicu.

In sum, my conversation with Brian was not only a unique insight into the business model of one of the AR industry’s most promising startups, but also a fascinating brainstorm about AR’s future role in society with someone who knows what he’s talking about.  If Brian’s passion for this subject is any indication, then both he and daqri will be relevant players in this field for a long time to come.

 

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