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Blippar bets on mobile as the future of augmented reality with new Unity deal

Blippar bets on mobile as the future of augmented reality with new Unity deal

How do you define the future of augmented reality?

Is it a $2,000 headset from Apple or a $1500 Oculus Quest Pro from Facebook? Or is it a device that we all hold in our hands that can cost just a few hundred dollars. A device that there are literally five billion of on this planet? AR platform Blippar is betting on the latter while not ignoring the former, and in this TechFirst we chat with the CEO Faisal Galaria about exactly why.

And, of course, an integration Blippar just built and announced for Unity, the technology that underpins half the world’s games and many of its immersive 3D experiences.

Check out the story on Forbes, or keep scrolling to watch/listen/read …

Transcript: the future of augmented reality, with Blippar CEO Faisal Galaria

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: We’re with Faisal Galaria, CEO of Blippar to talk about AR and a coming new deal that the company has. Welcome, Faisal.

Faisal Galaria: Great. Nice to be here, John.

John Koetsier: Hey, great to have you. I wanna start really general right off the top. You’ve been CEO of Blippar for a number of years now. How do you define augmented reality?

Faisal Galaria: Yeah, it’s been three years and, of course, the space is a constantly moving environment. But for us, augmented reality, it’s what we’ve been doing ever since 2011, which is superimposing digital content, a layer of digital content on the world around us. And it’s what we started doing, it’s where our provenance of the company is, and what we’ve been perfecting and getting better and better at ever since 2011.

John Koetsier: You’ve been doing that a long time, 2011, you just said that. And a new word has come up in the past, I want to say, couple years, I guess, probably primarily with Mark Zuckerberg from now Meta, used to be Facebook, putting it out there… metaverse. How does AR relate to metaverse in your opinion?

Faisal Galaria: That’s a great question because we get asked that same question in various forms over and over again. For us, if we go back to what we do, which is creating a digital layer on the world around us, that’s quite different from appearing in a computer screen with no legs, or appearing as a cartoon character on a game-like environment, even if that game-like environment allows you to take your avatar or your assets into other game-like environments.

What we do is what we term real-world metaverse, which is more like Pokémon GO.

You know, the real-world metaverse was coined by John Hanke at Niantic, and it’s superimposing digital content, be that Pokémon GO characters, or in our case, it could be cars, or instruction videos, or advertising, or instructions for taking medicine, or repairing a boiler and putting that in the real world. So, for us, it’s more utilitarian as opposed to being a little bit of fun or a pastime for a few moments.

John Koetsier: And yet, of course, as people build 3D objects or AR objects, it can be placed into, whether it’s sort of a real-world field of vision or a game environment or something like that. I mean, you can play games with that. Pokémon GO, of course, popularized AR. I think came out in 2016, 2017, around there and just took the world by storm, totally popularized augmented reality, or mixed reality as some people call it. So, there’s game-like things there as well.

Now, you are doing something that is pretty interesting. You’re integrating with a platform, which is very well-known for games, actually, 50% of the world’s games are built on this platform, but it also has significant technology for digital twins, for other things in AR and VR. It’s Unity. Tell us about what you’re doing with Unity.

Faisal Galaria: Thank you for that. And, of course, you’re right. Blippar has been or is used as a gaming mechanic and we have lots and lots of developers who build simple AR games, what we call lightweight XR games, using the platform.

But what we’ve heard over the last couple of years from the Unity developer community is that they’ve been increasingly trying to find a way to use the expertise that they’ve built and have for building AR experiences, and, of course, you can build some wonderful AR experiences using that platform, but haven’t found a way to really enable that and take that to the 5 billion mobile phones out there that are capable of running AR experiences natively in the mobile browser.

So, what we’re doing, we’re really excited about this, is we’ve built a plug-in that is available from our website and on that allows people that are familiar and have built on Unity to be able to take their AR experience and push that directly into the mobile browser so that no app is required from the end user in order to be able to use that AR experience.

And that could be for a game, it could be for education, it could be for a sports experience, it could be for retail, and it could be for architecture. The use cases are huge.

John Koetsier: That’s quite interesting, actually, because what it is essentially, is a bet on the platform of today continuing to be the platform for tomorrow for quite some time. I mean, we see the industry moving towards whether it’s metaverse, whether it’s augmented mixed reality, VR. Apple’s rumored to be coming out with a headset. We see the Oculus headsets that Meta has put out. I have the Oculus 2 myself.

I quite enjoy it, when I take the time to put it on… and that turns out to be about once a month.

And what you’re essentially saying is that, you know what? We all have this in our hands [smartphone], and that is ubiquitous, and that platform is where we’re going to be experiencing AR more significantly. And, you know, obviously, VR, unless you put … like the old Google had a little box you put your phone in [laughing]. But what you’re saying is that is going to be the predominant modality of accessing digital content that’s placed in our visual field of reference for the next number of years, at least. Is that accurate to say?

Faisal Galaria: Absolutely. Look, you know, we think about AR glasses being a great end state to aim at.

But just like not every household today has a games console, not every household in the near future is going to have a set of AR glasses.

And we’re trying to find a way to enable creators to be able to build compelling AR experiences, whatever platform they’re used to building on. If they’re used to building on Unity and you’re trained in Unity but can’t easily reach those mobile phone users, then you can do through Blippar. And if that experience is available to you through AR glasses, actually you can still push through and use the AR experience on the AR glasses. That’s the beauty of being able to push into the browser because these AR glasses will also have browser compatibility.

John Koetsier: That’s compelling because I love technology. I love gadgets, and I’ve bought the first Oculus Quest. I didn’t buy the one that was corded and stuck to a machine because I thought, “No, that’s super lame, you know. I’ll trip myself in the cord.”

But I bought the second one as well. I’ll probably look at buying the one that Apple is rumored to be coming out with, which is probably gonna be $2,000 or something like that. Meta is coming out with a pro version which will probably be 1,500 bucks or 1,300. I’ll look at that one as well.

But the reality, the harsh reality, which I don’t tell myself when I’m looking at shiny new objects is that this [holding smartphone]  is available. It’s in your pocket, it’s on your person. It’s never more… it’s a three-foot device, right?

Versus my Oculus Quest 2 kind of sits in the box, and every time I think about using it, I actually have to charge it because the battery has run out because it’s been sitting there too long.

And so, that’s a challenge. Unless and until we get something that’s as simple as putting on a pair of glasses and it’s instant on, like our smartphones are instant on, that’s gonna continue to be a challenge, I’m guessing.

Faisal Galaria: Look, I agree with everything you’ve said. And what we’re really trying to do is both make consumption and content creation super easy.

So, whether you’ve got, you know, a $100 smartphone in Indonesia or Nicaragua, you should be able to experience these wonderfully immersive 3D experiences on the 4G and 5G networks that are being built. And for the creator, we want to make it super easy for creators also to be able to build compelling AR experiences. Whether you are building for the web or for social media or for e-commerce, it’s got to be easier.

And at the moment, you have too many walled gardens, you have too many ways of building that are not interoperable.

And what we’re trying to do is put ourselves in the middle of the ecosystem so that whether you are a content creator, or whether you’re simply trying to get an AR experience to work and to experience that ice cream in 3D or that game in 3D, or whether you’re a professor trying to teach medicine and show the heart or the lungs in 3D, the technology should disappear. It should be about the experience and making the visual storytelling capability come to life, and it should be about the storytelling and the visual and not about the technology. So, we’re trying to make it really accessible, really easy, and make the technology kind of fade into the background.

John Koetsier: Let’s talk about that last mile a moment. You’re talking about the web, and the interesting thing about the web is that multiple pioneers in augmented reality and VR that I’ve talked to have said, “Look, we’re in the metaverse right now. As soon as we created, essentially computers and a virtual representation of reality or a digital representation of reality, that was sort of, like, metaverse 0.0001.”

And maybe we’re at 0.1 right now, and we’ll see where we go as we layer information around us and increasingly live digital lives.

Now, as you deliver these experiences to the web for the widest possible audience, lowest common denominator of technology, does that mean it’s available on the website? It notices, hey, I’ve got a mobile browser looking at me, taking me, and it’ll just show up? What is needed in the browser itself to make these experiences happen?

Faisal Galaria: Actually, for almost every smartphone … and there’s about 5 billion of them that are now out there that are already fully AR capable.

So, they’re running ARKit or ARCore, so whether you are an Apple user or an Android user, it doesn’t really matter. And as long as your smartphone is running, has a browser, has a camera, has a good processor, and a good quality screen, you can already start using AR today.

And it’s as simple as scanning a QR code, which everybody now knows how to do after the last couple of years of COVID, and just the experience opens up in the mobile browser. That’s the most common way people experience augmented reality. Of course, if you can be in an email and follow a URL, or if you’re in social media, you have a number of clients doing AR ads.

So, you click on an AR ad on your mobile phone, and rather than taking you to a plain old boring mobile website which has not changed in 25 years, you can actually resolve that into a 3D experience. And why not, right? When we are using phones that are vastly different from the phones that we used 10 years ago when we as Blippar started building AR. The processing power is …

Thanks to Moore’s law, we have phones now that could launch rockets to the moon. You know, we have very, very powerful devices with great cameras, great batteries, great processors, great screens. And we’ve been doing this since the time of the 2.5G and the very first smartphones. But now everybody has the capability in their pockets to resolve really high-quality AR experiences.

And part of what makes us different, John, is we’re able to actually tap the GPU on the phone as well, so the graphics processing capability on the phone, which means that we’re able to render images very, very quickly and with very, very high fidelity. Which means that even if you don’t have 4G, 5G running as a network, we take care of a lot of that in the background using our expertise and allow very, very high-quality experiences.

But, of course, you know, in some countries and in some cities, 5G is available with 100 times the bandwidth and 10 times less latency than 4G. And it really does allow a new type of interactive 3D immersive internet, which is really only capable because of the fat pipe, the amount of bandwidth, and that’s now available on 5G. And that’s part of what makes this so compelling. It’s going to open up an interactive 3D internet that’s different from the flat 2D experience that we’re having today.

John Koetsier: It will be interesting. I don’t know how much I see myself looking at the world through this screen here. On the other hand, if we’re looking at these menus that you kind of referenced… the QR codes that were gone and nobody was even thinking about them, but all of a sudden you have to get the restaurant menu on your QR code, all of a sudden, a second life there.

But, you know, hey, maybe mapping. There’s lots of applications there, shopping, obviously.

Let’s talk a little bit about the future of Blippar. Not a young company anymore. Went through some challenging times, reconstituted with you as CEO. We see other companies that might be seen as in similar spaces, like Sketchfab that got acquired. Do you see that in the future? What do you see in the future of Blippar?

Faisal Galaria: We think it’s a really interesting time right now to be in this space. And with this announcement around Unity, we’re also exploring how we can really further enable and empower creators to build really compelling AR experiences. And part of that is around enabling them to use either the 3D assets that they’ve already purchased, it might be from somewhere like Sketchfab or elsewhere, and importing those into Blippbuilder and our SDK.

We really want to be helping creators build and leverage assets, wherever they come from, and build really compelling AR experiences. And our toolkit is there to sit in the middle of this ecosystem and give creators powerful tools in the way that WordPress really enabled everyone to build websites and blog sites in Web 2.0.

You know, we’re increasingly coming to a stage where in order to realize this new 3D interactive internet that’s coming, and whether we’re there or it’ll come with AR glasses, there needs to be a content creation system that’s accessible to everybody.

John Koetsier: Well, and you mentioned WordPress, which is open source and free. I mean, you can get a paid support layer, but it’s open source and free.

You recently made Blippar free to use, correct? And it’s a no-code tool, correct?

Faisal Galaria: So, that’s partly true, John. We made Blippbuilder, which is our no-code drag-and-drop platform that’s today being used by hundreds of thousands of creators at all skill levels, everyone from bedroom creative through to people at agencies and brands, and they can build and publish completely for free.

We then have SDK, which is our professional tool, which is aimed at agencies and brands for commercial usage and who want to be able to take our Blippbuilder tool but also to be able to script on top of that using either HTML or JavaScript tools to be able to build fantastical even more sophisticated AR experiences. And in that case, they pay for views.

John Koetsier: Right. Okay, excellent. Let’s end here. Let’s dream a little bit, get in the crystal ball a little bit. It’s been more or less a decade that Blippar has been working on inventing this future of augmented reality. Push yourself out another decade, whether you’re at Blippar or whether you’re thinking from Blippar’s perspective or not, what does the world look like? What does our experience like in terms of digital realities overlaying physical realities?

Faisal Galaria: I think it’s gonna be a really exciting few years.

And if you think about my kids who are seven, five, and one, you know, the AR world that they’ll be experiencing, they won’t be taught to in the way that I was taught to with a professor or a teacher at the front of the classroom asking the children to imagine what the Himalayas look like, or to look at a book and imagine what the rainforests in the Amazon look like, or what the water cycle is from the ocean to evaporation to the clouds. They’ll be able to see it and be able to interact with it. And it won’t require people to try and imagine it. It’ll be like going from black and white TV to full-color TV. You’d be able to see it vividly and experience it in, you know, almost like real life.

I was lucky enough to be at Skype… early Skype, and I remember saying to people that you’ll be able to call family members and friends for free and have video, and it’s all gonna be on the computer. And, you know, back in 2003, and people were like, “Calling free on laptops?” But now, of course, we’re very used to having these types of conversations.

In 10 years, it’d be great, wouldn’t it, to be able to see family members as a hologram in front of you, sit on the sofa, and to be able to share that experience together. And make it so simple that even people like my grandma, you know, who experienced video calling for the first time 10 years ago, for whom this was a complete revelation, to actually feel like she can be surrounded by her family members and they can all be together in the same environment.

Whether that’s something like that, or even the idea of going out to buy a pair of jeans or a jacket, or even something as sophisticated as a car… that should all come to you, and you should be able to see it in the comfort of your own workplace or home.

And so it changes the way that we interact with the world around us. And it could be for calling and virtual presence, it could be for advertising, it could be for architecture and education. I think it’s going to be really a matter of putting the tool into the hands of creatives and seeing what people’s imagination allows them to build, and that’s the exciting part about building a toolset like this.

John Koetsier: Yeah, it will be a brave new world. It’d be very interesting to see what we do. The nature of reality will be different. What is real and what is not real, what is virtual, what is layered over actual reality will be incredibly interesting.

I have an interesting story for you as an early Skyper. I pretty much built a company based on Skype, which was revolutionary in its day. And one time, I was at a conference in Athens. I had no service on my cellular phone, and it was a busy conference, very noisy, and I had to Skype. It was a critical business call, and I had to use my laptop like an old-style clamshell flip phone [laughing] near my head, like this, to hear from the speakers and be able to speak.

And so, that was my Skype moment using my laptop as a flip phone and getting the job done on the road. Faisal, it’s been interesting to chat. Thank you for taking the time. Do appreciate it.

Faisal Galaria: Nice to meet you, John. Look forward to the next conversation as well.

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