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Mixed reality, wearable tech, and AI: 2024, the year spatial computing takes off

By Tom Emrich | Director of product management

Niantic

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January 22, 2024 | 8 min read

Niantic’s Tom Emrich looks at how various tech streams – AR and VR, wearable tech, geospatial advancements, and AI – are converging to make 2024 the year of mixed reality and spatial computing.

An art deco-style rocket, at Cape Canaveral, US

Is 2024 the year when mixed reality takes off? / John Baker via Unsplash

Imagine a world where digital and physical realities merge seamlessly. This isn’t science fiction; it’s reality, happening today, thanks to the advent of spatial computing.

We’ve long been accustomed to flat, 2D digital experiences. But a revolution is underway, shifting our interaction with technology into the next dimension, in three dimensions.

‘Spatial computing’ encompasses technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, and robotics. This tech is already transforming how we interact with the physical world, by enabling computers to ‘perceive’, interact with, and navigate through 3D space, creating experiences more immersive than ever.

Here come the spatial computers

We’re at a pivotal moment for immersive hardware.

For a start, we’re witnessing a significant transition from traditional virtual reality (VR) head-mounted displays to more versatile mixed reality (MR) headsets. This evolution began in 2023 with the Meta Quest 3, but the real game-changer arrives this year, as Apple launches its much-anticipated spatial computer, the Vision Pro, in February. If expectations hold true, 2024 will also see major releases from Samsung/Google, ByteDance (of TikTok fame), Oppo, and rising stars like Xreal.

Mixed reality is poised to revitalize this gradually growing market, integrating virtual and augmented realities – VR and AR. This technology allows users to see their physical surroundings and interact with people around them while wearing the headset, tackling a major drawback of VR: the feeling of isolation. It also provides a new way to engage users, making use of their worlds.

The category is just getting started – think of the early PC era: bulky and costly, but sufficiently advanced to appeal to early adopters and enrich family experiences. We can expect continual innovation in this field, focusing on enhanced comfort and design, improved display quality, and more intuitive interaction and tracking mechanisms.

As the cost becomes more accessible and the range of applications broadens, wider adoption is inevitable. 2024 will offer a glimpse into this future as we learn more about the successors to Meta Quest 3 and Apple Vision Pro. The focus for Quest 4 will likely be on eye-tracking and resolution, aiming to match Apple’s standards. Vision Pro 2 might concentrate on affordability, to better compete with Meta.

Smart glasses give virtual assistants eyes and ears

Imagine your sunglasses (or a pin on your shirt) seeing and hearing, just like you do. That’s the future wearable technology is bringing us, hastened by the rise of AI.

Over a decade ago, wearable tech started making waves by putting sensors on our bodies. Now, it's about to get even more interesting thanks to advancements in AI.

The game-changer here is something called multi-modal large language models (LLMs): advanced AIs that can ‘understand’ and create text, images, sounds, and maybe even videos. ‘Multi-modal’ means that these AIs can handle different types of information at once. This is a huge leap forward, making AI more like us in how it understands and interacts with the world.

Wearable devices, like smart glasses, are key to this evolution: they give these AI systems ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ (cameras and microphones). This makes interactions much more natural and relevant to our surroundings. Instead of always looking at screens, these devices can communicate with us in new ways, like through sounds or projections that feel more natural and less distracting.

Last year, we saw the first hints of this new era with gadgets like Humane’s Ai Pin and next-gen Meta Ray-Ban glasses. All of these centered their value around AI: the Meta Ray-Ban glasses used multi-modal AI by to aid outfit choice, just by looking at a shirt.

This year, expect more AI-powered wearables using AI technology from the likes of OpenAI, Anthropic, and even smarter versions of our most familiar virtual assistants Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri.

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Spatial awareness and geospatial systems bring mixed reality to mobile

With nearly 7bn smartphones in the world, mobile AR continues to be the most effective way to reach the widest audience possible with immersive technologies.

This year, mobile AR grows up, moving into a more advanced form of augmented reality: mixed reality (MR). This leap is fueled by enhanced spatial awareness and precise positional tracking. These technologies, underpinned by AI and machine learning, enable digital content to mimic real-world behavior more convincingly.

In MR, the digital and real worlds are blended more seamlessly. The digital content not only appears in the real world but also interacts with it in more complex and realistic ways. Keep an eye on emerging platforms and tools, which introduce features like GAN-enabled filters, semantic spatial understanding, and geospatial systems. These advancements will allow developers to create AR experiences which feel more personal, more meaningful, and more real.

Now’s the time for spatial computing

In an era where cutting-edge hardware innovations are continually emerging, and advanced development tools are more accessible than ever, the shift towards a 3D-centric approach in branding is not just timely, but imperative. The landscape of consumer technology is rapidly evolving beyond the confines of traditional smartphones, opening new vistas for user interaction and engagement.

This transition signifies a pivotal moment for brands to embrace spatial computing. By 3D-ifying your brand, you not only future-proof your business but also position it at the forefront of this technological revolution. Ensuring your brand is adept in spatial computing is not merely an enhancement; it’s a strategic necessity to stay competitive and relevant in this fast-paced era.

Content by The Drum Network member:

Niantic

Niantic builds augmented reality technology that powers the real-world metaverse. Its Lightship platform is the world’s first scaled AR platform, enabling developers around the world to create sophisticated AR experiences for phones and eventually AR glasses. Lightship is also the foundation for Niantic’s hit games, including Pokémon GO, Pikmin Bloom and Ingress.

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