Selected as a top five AR/VR company in the world, AppliedVR joins the ranks of Snap, Nvidia, Google, and more.
Last year, we got a much better look at the role that mixed-reality products could play in post-pandemic life. Mixed reality (XR) in its various forms—including virtual reality and augmented reality—seemed like the obvious answer to achieving some level of togetherness at work now that we spend much more of our time working from home. People began using XR for everything from collaborative design sessions to department meetings to informal hangouts.
The year 2021 might also be remembered as the one when we all started talking about the metaverse, and mixed reality technology is expected to be our main way of accessing that all-purpose virtual space. Unfortunately, as has happened before in the XR space, some companies like Meta are promoting a long-term vision of the technology well before they can deliver the actual tech to make those experiences real.
We might also look back at 2021 and 2022 as the calm before the storm. Meta reportedly has more than 10,000 people working on mixed reality. Apple reportedly has more than 2,000 developing XR. Google says it’s developing a mixed reality OS, and is openly trying to lure talent to Mountain View to build it. By most accounts, we’re likely to see the first XR glasses, in some form, in 2023.
While most Big Tech XR remains rumor and hype, smaller companies have been making meaningful innovative strides toward useful—and enjoyable—spatial computing. AppliedVR and others are developing VR experiences that have real positive effects on a growing number of mental health issues. Companies such as Google, Niantic, and SightCall are fine-tuning AR apps that work on the technology we already have: phones and tablets. Snap continues to revise its Spectacles glasses, a work in progress that is edging closer to being a wearable social AR device that people will actually feel comfortable wearing in public. Startups such as Avegant and Lumus are developing advanced in-lens displays.
Cumulatively, the industry made important strides toward the vision of wearing personal computing devices on our faces, with the world in front of us becoming part of the UX. These are the most important contributions to the evolution of the technology we found in 2021.
1. SNAP For advancing practical uses of AR
Snap, which was also on last year’s Most Innovative Companies list, continues to inculcate hundreds of millions of people into the potential of augmented reality, bit by bit rather than all at once. Snap upgraded its try-on tech this year to allow for more accurate fits in eyeglasses. It also partnered with Prada to take advantage of gesture-recognition tech so that Snapchat users can signal to the Snap camera when they want to see another handbag or view it in another color. Farfetch is using Snap’s new voice controls to allow users to try new styles in conversation with the app. The company also offers brand analytics on the shopping behavior of users, so they can learn more about which products and styles are popular. Snap’s creator strategy, which paid out $250 million in its first year, is part of this overall effort as well. More than 200,000 Snap creators have helped brands build and customize lens experiences, making it easier for companies to launch campaigns on Snapchat. All of this ties into how Snap users engage with the app: According to a report in early December, “beauty seekers” on Snap think of it as a virtual mirror and gaze into it 30 or more times per day. That creates opportunities for the L’Oréals and Pradas of the world—and fuels Snap’s ability to continue growing at more than 50% year over year and get to profitability, which is tantalizingly close. And to top it all off, Snap released its own Spectacles AR glasses, the lenses of which intermingle digital imagery with the wearer’s view of the real world. Snap is supplying the glasses to developers to help them begin building more immersive AR experiences. Snap is No. 15 on Fast Company’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.
2. NVIDIA For creating an “Omniverse” for developers
While tech companies talked about consumer experiences in the metaverse, Nvidia was developing the technology needed to actually build it. Most people think a proper metaverse is an open place where you can move your avatar, digital stuff, and currency around with you to whatever virtual reality “world” you want to visit. Enabling that openness may be the long game of Nvidia’s new innovative Omniverse platform, which allows developers from different companies using different tools to quickly share and sync 3D graphics using a Pixar-developed open standard called Universal Scene Description (USD). The heavy lifting is done on powerful Nvidia graphics cards that can be linked together on different servers. Enterprises have already seized on Omniverse to develop “digital twins” of their facilities or service areas. Ericsson, for example, is using Omniverse to build digital twins of cities to help it understand how 5G wireless signal propagates. Siemens is using the platform to create digital versions of the factories it builds so that it can run simulations and predict when parts of the facility will need replacement. These applications are created by and for single companies, but Omniverse (or some future version of it) could eventually be used as an open platform through which many creators using many different tools could agree (on a practical, technical level) on the physics and function of a single, fluid metaverse.
3. NIANTIC For allowing AR to bloom
In 2021, a handful of big tech companies presented the public with what they think experiences in the metaverse will feel like. They were imagined through the technologies available today, which is why they appeared closed off and proprietary, as through a VR headset. Niantic has a very different view of the metaverse–one that is intermingled with the natural world. Niantic, of course, pioneered AR gaming with its innovative Pokémon Go, which encouraged players to go outside and capture Pokémon hidden within the real world. Pokémon is still huge, and Niantic has now riffed on the theme with its new Pikmin Bloom, in which you pluck flower petals from the heads of cute animated characters (Pikmin), then plant them to leave trails of little (virtual) flowers behind you. It’s a less cold and dorky metaverse. It’s the Naturalverse. And the company isn’t just using that world for its own projects. Niantic made some important strides in 2021 toward enabling other developers to build their own AR experiences using the company’s Lightship development platform via an Augmented Reality Development Kit (ARDK). It gives developers access to Niantic’s 3D map of the world, which lets them anchor digital content to real-world places. This year, the ARDK left beta and became available worldwide. Niantic also added a new technology to its Lightship AR platform that allows people using regular smartphones to contribute images or video to the map.
4. SIGHTCALL For adding a new layer to remote assistance service calls
SightCall’s augmented reality tool lets customer service reps offer real-time video assistance–with overlaid digital graphics–to faraway customers. Customers point their cameras at problem areas, then SightCall uses AR and artificial intelligence to guide them through the steps needed to solve their problem. In 2021, the company launched SightCall Digital Flows, a self-service option that lets customers access AR assistance sessions designed to fix specific problems without the help of a customer service rep. Some high-profile companies are now using SightCall’s product to connect with customers, including L’Oréal, Kraft Heinz, GE Healthcare, and Jaguar Land Rover. The company says it has 300 enterprise customers around the world performing more than 3 million customer video assistance calls every year. Importantly, SightCall introduced live speech interpreters and real-time AI speech translations to meet the need of multinational companies to assist customers all over the world.
5. APPLIEDVR For using VR to manage pain
With its innovative EaseVRx device, digital therapeutics startup AppliedVR has developed a series of two- to 16-minute virtual reality experiences that help people with chronic lower back problems deal with pain. The technology is prescribed by a doctor and consists of a VR headset and controller, as well as a “breathing amplifier” attached to the headset that directs a patient’s breath toward the headset’s microphone for use in deep-breathing exercises. The VR program teaches users skills such as deep relaxation, attention shifting, distraction, immersive enjoyment, and healthy movement. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the marketing of EaseVRx’s technology after it significantly reduced the pain of chronic lower back pain sufferers in an eight-week clinical trial period. Some 66% of EaseVRx participants reported a greater than 30% reduction in pain, compared to 41% of a control group in the 179-person trial.
6. GOOGLE For annotating indoor spaces
Google Maps now lets you see augmented reality place markers and directions through your phone to help you navigate complex indoor environments, such as labyrinthine subway stations, airports, and shopping malls. Google says that it uses AI to analyze millions of photographs to understand the vantage point of the user for the Live View feature. It also relies on new techniques to determine the precise altitude and placement of objects within a building (a store inside a multilevel mall, for example). Google launched the feature for malls in a handful of cities in March 2021 and has been busy expanding the rollout to airports, malls, and transit stations in new cities.
7. AVEGANT For making a giant tech leap toward miniaturizing smart glasses
Augmented reality glasses face some significant technology hurdles. So far no tech company has managed to fit the displays, sensors, processors, and battery into a form factor small enough and light enough to be worn for extended periods. The small Menlo Park, California-based component supplier Avegant, however, may have cleared one important hurdle by miniaturizing the light engines that produce digital imagery within the lenses of AR glasses. The company says its innovative AG-50L light engines, which it launched in September, are no thicker than a pencil and weigh about as much as a paper clip. They use eye-tracking sensors to project light just where the user is looking. The company intends to sell its light engines to tech companies that are now trying to overcome the R&D challenges of developing AR glasses that look reasonably similar in size and weight to regular glasses.
8. HTC VIVE For creating a VR headset immersive enough for enterprise use
The Vive Focus 3 is HTC’s third try at a stand-alone virtual reality headset, and the company nailed it. The innovative headset’s 5K high-resolution graphics, tight head tracking, and 120-degree field of view make it easily superior to the consumer VR headsets currently on the market. HTC gave the headset a unique active cooling system (a fan), which allows it to push the processor hard enough to create more compelling and immersive augmented reality content. But the Focus 3 isn’t a consumer product (sorry, gamers). It’s designed and priced for corporate budgets at $1,300. For many enterprise customers, it’ll be well worth it. Many companies already hold remote meetings with faraway partners to work through design issues using virtual 3D models in VR, rather than bearing the high expense (and uncertainty) of sending people to meet in person. For example, Avatour, which counts Meta and NTT Docomo as customers, intends to use the Focus 3 to help its government and enterprise clients with remote collaboration and site inspections. Corporations also now routinely turn to VR to train employees, especially on more complex jobs that require refined skills. VRMADA, for example, will use the Focus 3 to deliver the VR training simulations it creates for its clients, which include Cisco and British Airways.
9. 3DAR For letting viewers unlock new ways to experience VR in film
The virtual reality production studio 3dar has become known for pushing the boundaries of VR as a storytelling tool. In 2021, it followed up its impressive Gloomy Eyes short, which won best VR piece at South by Southwest in 2019, with an even more groundbreaking animated piece called Paper Birds. In part one of the 30-minute interactive VR story, the main character, a young musician named Toto, moves from childhood through adulthood as he navigates life and wrestles with the mysteries of inspiration. Visually, the creators cast luminous little scenes and animations in great gulfs of dark space, while the animated characters, voiced by Ed Norton, Joss Stone, and Archie Yates and designed by illustrator Oscar Ramos, are adorable and highly emotive. But the truly groundbreaking aspect of Paper Birds is in its interactivity. You’re invited to use the hand tracking in the Oculus Quest headset to paint brushstrokes of stars in the void of space, conduct music, and unlock portals. Paper Birds premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2021. The Academy of International Extended Reality (AIXR) gave Paper Birds the award for VR Film of the Year at its fifth annual VR Awards in December.
10. RESOLUTION GAMES For taking the VR gaming throne with Demeo
Resolution Games bet on virtual reality gaming earlier than most developers. In May, the Swedish company released its most innovative and compelling game yet, Demeo. Though Resolution Games could have easily used VR to make Demeo an action role-playing game, it chose the slower pace of a board game genre that recalls physical games like Dungeons & Dragons. One of the adventures in the game involves a storyline where the sewers under the city of Sunderhaven have a serious rat problem, and players must descend into the smelly darkness below and work as a team to defeat the Rat King and his loyal minions. Players’ avatars float over a dungeon floor that doubles as a game board, where they advance by picking up cards and game tokens using the trigger on the hand controller. One of the reasons for the game’s success is that it pulled people together (either in person or virtually) to play Demeo and socialize.
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Fast Company magazine.