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The AR Space Race, Part IX: Epic Games

AR Insider

One of AR’s foundational principles is to fuse the digital and physical. The real world is a key part of that formula… and real-world relevance is often defined by location. That same relevance and scarcity are what drive real estate value….location, location, location.

Synthesizing these factors, one of AR’s battlegrounds will be in augmenting the world in location-relevant ways. That could be wayfinding with Google Live View, or visual search with Google Lens. Point your phone (or future glasses) at places and objects to contextualize them.

As you can tell from the above examples, Google will have a key stake in this “Internet of Places.” But it’s not alone. Apple signals interest in location-relevant AR through its geo-anchors and Project Gobi. Facebook is building “ Live Maps” and Snapchat is pushing Local Lenses.

These are a few utilitarian, commerce, and social angles. How else will geospatial AR materialize? What are its active ingredients, including 5G and the AR cloud? This is the theme of our Space Race series, where we break down who’s doing what….continuing here with Epic Games.

Before getting into the details, what’s the real-world metaverse? First, you’ve probably heard the term metaverse a lot lately. It’s become a runaway train in the gaming and VR worlds. But though it’s been ambiguated by overuse, the term does represent legitimate principles.

It broadly refers to digital domains that host synchronous interaction between placeshifted participants. In other words, time is synced for real-time digital interactions between far-flung individuals. Of course, you could argue that’s what the internet already does, and you’d be right.

The difference with the metaverses is that it’s “embodied” as Mark Zuckerberg says. That’s a fancy way of saying it happens in 3D. So today’s metaverse-like fiefdoms we can point to as examples include MMOs Roblox and Fortnite, which is made using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine.

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But though these metaverse musings often focus on wholly digital domains like a networked video game, it will also apply to the real world. In other words, digital twins will overlay the physical world to enable AR devices to evoke relevant and geo-anchored digital content.

These are the experiences that Project Anywhere could help develop. Equipped with Cesium’s 3D Tiles and geolocal data from Microsoft Bing and OpenStreetMap, the software lets developers simulate geo-specific experiences. And it all comes to life through Hololens 2.

Developers can download Project Anywhere for free as a sample from Unreal Engine, which will also include Microsoft Mixed Reality Toolkit for Unreal. This will let them teleport to real-world locations for the purpose of simulating real-world activities or digital interactions.

But not everyone has that data. AR devices must understand a scene and localize themselves before they can integrate AR graphics believably. That happens with a combination of mapping the contours of a scene ( LiDAR will help), and tapping into previously-mapped spatial data.

This is where tools like Project Anywhere could be useful in developing digital interactions that sync with or relate to real-world locations. There will be many potential outcomes for Project Anywhere, and Epic positions it as an open-ended platform to build geo-relevant experiences.

That could be 3D games that graphically mimic real-world locations (think: Fortnite-style battle royale set in Manhattan). But the ability to model digital experiences in real-world settings could also be a foundation for developing real-world geo-local AR similar to Pokémon Go.

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Meanwhile, Facebook is similarly building “Live Maps.” As explained by Facebook Reality Labs’ chief scientist Michael Abrash, this involves building indexes (geometry) and ontologies (meaning) of the physical world. This will be the data backbone for Facebook’s AR ambitions.

Then there’s Snapchat, the reigning champion of consumer mobile AR. Erstwhile propelled by selfie-lenses, Snap’s larger AR ambitions will flip the focus to the rear-facing camera to augment the broader canvas of the physical world. This is the thinking behind its Local Lenses.

Beyond tech giants, there are several startups positioned at the intersection of AR and geolocation, and more will emerge to flesh out an ecosystem. Whether we call it the Internet of Places, the AR Cloud, Mirrorworld, or Metaverse, it could drive AR’s ultimate real-world utility.

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