Xconomy Q&A: Vuforia, Pokémon Go, and Augmented Reality

Talk about auspicious timing. It’s been less than a year since Needham, MA-based PTC (NASDAQ: PTC) shelled out $65 million to acquire Vuforia, the augmented reality technology created by San Diego-based Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM).

Qualcomm had worked to develop its Vuforia technology for at least five years before a maturing smartphone market and new economic realities led to the sale. Of course, as Xconomy noted last year, there also were precious few examples of mobile games or ads that became a runaway success because of the way they used augmented technology.

But now there is an exceptional example.

Last week, the mobile app market research firm Sensor Tower estimated that Pokémon Go has generated over $200 million in worldwide net revenue for its creators since July 6, when the free mobile game was launched. As mobile marketing executive Eric Mugnier recently observed in VentureBeat, “Pokémon Go has amassed more downloads, headlines, revenue, and memes than anyone could have predicted.”

Under the circumstances, it seemed like an apt time to check in with former Qualcomm vice president Jay Wright—who is now president of PTC’s Vuforia business—to see how the augmented reality business is going and how Pokémon Go is reshaping the industry.

Vuforia President Jay Wright

Jay Wright

PTC completed its Vuforia purchase last November as part of a broader initiative to build a new platforms business through a series of acquisitions and organic investments., Wright said. Among other things, PTC has invested nearly a $1 billion on Kepware for industrial connectivity, ThingWorx for IoT, and Vuforia for augmented reality. He described them as “natural extensions” of PTC’s already successful CAD, Product Lifecycle Management, Application Lifecycle Management, and Service Lifecycle Management businesses.

Vuforia’s headquarters has remained in San Diego, and Vuforia continues to operate four offices in Europe and Israel, Wright said. His e-mail responses to my questions have been edited for readability.

Xconomy: Did you know Niantic was working on Pokémon Go when PTC acquired Vuforia?

Jay Wright: I was familiar with the company and their success with Ingress [Niantic’s augmented-reality massive multiplayer online location-based video game], but was as surprised as everyone with the incredible Pokémon Go phenomenon. It has created a new wave of interest in AR, and has certainly spurred additional growth in the Vuforia ecosystem.

X: Has PTC’s vision for Vuforia and augmented reality changed as a result?

JW: Vuforia’s mission is to democratize augmented reality development.  As part of that mission, we focus on solving the really hard problems, and making simple solutions available that everyone can use.  Prior to the acquisition, we focused primarily on computer vision.  Computer vision gives devices the ability to “see” things.

JW: Now that we’re at PTC, the mission hasn’t changed. We’re still solving the hard problems, and we’re focused on a huge new one with content creation. Through collaboration with PTC’s 3D experts, we have already made huge strides with the recent launch of Vuforia Studio. Vuforia Studio makes it incredibly easy to publish existing Computer Aided Design (CAD) data in AR, and will deliver tremendous value for the enterprise and beyond.

X: Why is content creation a problem?

JW: AR depends on 3D content, which is difficult and expensive to produce. As it turns out, there is a tremendous amount of 3D content that already exists in the form of CAD data. There is a ton of this CAD data, much of it created and managed with PTC products like Creo and Windchill. Further, all this CAD data is just screaming to be published in AR.  While today it is primarily consumed on paper and computer screens, it has tremendous value in AR, where it can be used to create, operate, and service products.

JW: [Computer vision] is important because if you can’t see something, you can’t put an AR experience on top of it.  The core of our solution is the Vuforia Engine.  It’s like a software eye that a developer puts inside his application.  It turns on the camera, and then tells the application what the camera sees and where.  It’s then up to the app to draw the 3D graphics in the right place, and there you have it: augmented reality.

X: Is augmented reality the reason Pokémon Go has been so successful?

Pokemon Go monster (courtesy Niantic Labs development team)JW: Augmented reality is an important part of the allure. It’s AR that makes you believe that those imaginary Pokémon actually exist—that the digital world exists in the physical world.  It turns out that you don’t actually need AR to play the game, and I understand many players do not use the AR view.  But whether players use AR or not, there is no question that Pokémon Go is drawing incredible attention to AR. We’re certainly seeing increased interest in Vuforia as a result, and hope the phenomenon continues.

X: Has the success of Pokémon Go triggered a stampede to license other popular games for an augmented reality platform? Will Candy Crush AR be the next big thing?

JW: There are actually a number of games that use AR (and Vuforia specifically) today. LEGO Nexo Knights uses Vuforia when certain LEGO bricks are scanned. Activision uses Vuforia with their Skylanders card game. Mattel uses Vuforia in the new Mattel ViewMaster.  Since Pokémon Go, we have seen our developer registrations increase more than 50 percent, and there are now 35,000 Vuforia projects under development worldwide.

X: Are there other near-term applications of AR that make sense? Are any gaining traction?

JW: There have been more than 30,000 AR applications created with Vuforia. The most prominent use has been for marketing purposes. One of the most common examples is using AR to visualize a product before you buy it. Think for a minute about buying a TV.  Will the 50-inch screen fit in my living room? Wouldn’t it be great if I could just picture it on the wall and see what it looks like?  That’s exactly what you can do with AR.

X: Are there uses beyond marketing?

JW: One of the most powerful things you can do with AR is deliver step-by-step instructions.  You can throw away the printed instructions. Instead, just hold up a phone or tablet and the instructions will appear directly on top of what you’re working on.  They become so seamless, that it’s almost like gaining some kind of super-power. The content (in this case the instructions) does exist, but it’s locked up in CAD and related systems. We need tools to get it out of CAD systems, and published in AR.

X: That’s what Vuforia Studio is meant to do?

JW: It will unlock the power of step-by-step instructions and beyond, and will help future technicians, service representatives, equipment operators, and inspectors.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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