Interview with Matthew Szymczyk about Augmented Reality

Matthew Szymczyk has been the CEO of Zugara for more than a decade. Zugara is a successful employee owned Augmented Reality (AR) development company located in Los Angeles, California. Matt and his team create custom and proprietary Augmented Reality software along with providing other creative services to a growing list of clients that include Sony, Reebok, AT&T, Muscle Milk, and Nestle. Matt’s company is also a member of The AR Consortium and he is a well cited expert, author and enthusiast of AR technology.

Here are my 5 questions with Matt and my summary of his answers:

1) What is Augmented Reality (as you define it) and do you believe that it is fair to leave the definition open to personal interpretation or do you think it would behoove the AR industry to finally establish a consensus?

Augmented Reality (AR) by its basic definition is when you are augmenting information in a live video feed. This would be through a webcam or mobile viewfinder. Though that is the baseline definition for AR currently, however there are other uses that have fallen under the AR umbrella. Motion capture, for example what is used to power Microsoft Kinect, has been called AR because it is augmenting the gameplay experience through gestural control. Projection Mapping, which involves projecting interactive video on solid objects, has also been considered AR, though some dispute it. Finally, to show how overreaching the AR umbrella has become, there are quite a few AR examples out now that use a fixed image (taken via the webcam or mobile camera) that is used as the background to then apply digital information on top of it. Though this isn’t literal AR, it has been picked up by the press as AR technology.

As for a consensus, given the industry is so new, there have been varying viewpoints as to what defines AR. Until the AR industry matures a bit, there likely won’t be standards or best practices defined (like there are in other emerging media/technologies such as Mobile Marketing).

2) To what degree is innovative Augmented Reality a slave to hardware (webcams, Vuzix glasses, GPS, pico projectors, etc.)? And are there any innovations on the horizon (regarding hardware) that will change the game?

AR will for the foreseeable future be tied to hardware advancements. You are in effect providing a layer of digital information that requires some sort of processing power to achieve an acceptable user experience baseline. However, even over the course of the last 2 years, there have been great strides in what can be accomplished in AR on the web, mobile and in kiosks.

Kinect has helped usher in the NUI (Natural User Interface) that will be game changing for how people will expect to interact with digital information. You’re also likely to see increased usage of kiosk-based AR in 2011 as kiosks enable as much processing power as needed for an optimal experience, while also removing any potential barriers for consumers (ex. webcams).

Mobile based AR is currently receiving much of the hype, but it will be awhile before mobile handsets are powerful enough to provide optimal AR experiences. You’ll likely see more tablet based AR executions in 2011. Finally, Adobe will be releasing Molehill in 2011 which will provide more powerful Flash-based AR executions both on the Web and for mobile platforms. This is an area to watch given Adobe’s current penetration rate on the Web and their partnership with Google on the Android platform.

3) What measures have you created internally to ensure that Zugara’s mission of producing Augmented Reality software improves life experience, juxtaposed to pure marketing plays?

When we develop our Augmented Reality technologies we often look at how they can be used in specific use cases. Meaning, we look at how AR can be used to solve a real-world problem or enhance an experience that wouldn’t be possible without AR. As we’ve reviewed areas and use cases that could leverage AR, we either see what tech is available to help solve the problem or we will try and create it ourselves.

Unfortunately, due to the marketing plays and gimmicks out there, AR is often labeled as “a technology searching for a solution”. However, we couldn’t disagree more when it comes to enhancing the e-commerce space through the use of 2 of our technologies – The Webcam Social Shopper and ZugSTAR. E-commerce currently has 2 major issues – shopping cart conversion rates and high amount of returns. We look to AR to help solve these problems for e-commerce retailers by allowing shoppers to make more informed purchase decisions through the use of AR technology, thus increasing conversion rates and decreasing returns.

4) Recently there have been some really creative uses of Augmented Reality, a few examples: the Zugara Webcam Social Shopper, the Leo Burnett’s WWF campaign, and the Unlogo project. However, it appears that with improvements in cloud computing, mobile speed, brain-computer interfacing and computer processing power this idea of “articulated naturality” and an increased ability to provide valuable real-time information in pioneering ways means we haven’t seen anything yet. As an expert in the AR field looking out onto the horizon, what excites you the most?

One area that I’m both excited for and afraid of at the same time is how augmented information will spread as the field develops. For instance, most companies aren’t even thinking about where and how augmented ads or information can be placed both from a competitive view or placement. When you look at the outside of a restaurant in your normal view, you often base your decision on the menu, what specials the restaurant might have, and/or consumer feedback you can get on your mobile device. However, in the augmented future, you’ll be able to use your mobile display or even your eyewear to see augmented information on this restaurant that you couldn’t view normally. This could be anything from a special digital coupon for that night’s meal or even competitors trying to advertise competing specials all in your augmented view. This will also start a whole new level of how businesses and people will need to define property rights in regards to how and where augmented information can be displayed. (Note: Matt authored an entire article on this subject for AdvertisingAge: Your Ad Where? Defining Virtual Property Rights in an Augmented World)

From a personal standpoint, I am interested to try out the Vuzix AR glasses and AR Parrot drone. Mobile is definitely going to be the centerpoint for all AR in the future, and AR glasses (with your smartphone acting as the processor) will likely be the main components for the first real mobile AR experience.

5) If your only limit was the technology available to you today, but you had unlimited resources and time coupled with the ability to push the boundaries of available software, what would be your quintessential Augmented Reality project?

Our optimal AR project would be one we have already been working on – ZugSTAR. Given our marketing background, we have tracked behaviors of the Gen Y generation and see what is upcoming not only for that generation, but the following one as well – Gen Z. Both of these generations are growing up in an era where there is a major user experience shift in how they will interact and find digital information. There’s one key area we’ve focused in on in regards to technology these generations use more than others – video chat. When you combine Video Chat with the emergence of the NUI (Natural User Interface) you can start to see the potential for a major shift in user interactions and behaviors. Kinect is just scratching the surface right now for gestural controls so we’re looking at how our ZugSTAR technology can be used for literally any industry by combining an Augmented experience, gestural controls and video chat into a new, future method of interaction and collaboration.