Will these companies work in vain until Apple is gone?
Head image | Nreal
Returning to China at this time, according to Xu Chi’s own words, “Mainland China is Nreal’s most important market, and we must make all preparations before officially entering.”
But what he didn’t say is that at the beginning of the business, when the concept of “metaverse” was not yet popularized, there was almost no audience for such products in China. This may be the real reason why Nreal chose to go overseas in the first place.
On August 23, Nreal held its first domestic press conference, and Xu Chi on the stage looked determined to win.
However, Nreal is not alone in seeing the potential of the consumer AR market right now. Since the first quarter of this year, there have been rumors aboutappleRumors of the first “Metaverse” hardware product of Apple’s “Metaverse” continue, and multiple sources of information indicate that Apple will release an MR (mixed reality) head-mounted display product by the second quarter of next year at the latest, which can be simply understood as “VR+AR”. solution. Affected by this news, the capital market has paid special attention to the related hardware industry this year.
At the same time, a number of startups including Rokid, Liangliang Vision, Yingmu Technology, and Thunderbird Innovation are also making efforts to consumer-grade AR this year.Millet、OPPO, Lenovo and other major consumer electronics manufacturers are also continuing to increase their bets in this field.
Another round of the AR industry is blowing at the moment.
This also makes people worry, will this round of tuyere be like the VR/AR entrepreneurial wave in 2015, which started hastily and ended hastily?
Go back to seven years ago, when Xu Chi was still a software engineer at Magic Leap. With a demo of “Whale Out of Water” becoming popular on the Internet, Magic Leap became the hottest unicorn in the United States, promoting VR// The AR startup wave is rapidly sweeping the global technology industry.
The video was later accused of being a fake
In China, entrepreneurs chose a VR track with a clearer scene after weighing the pros and cons. However, due to technical limitations and the extreme lack of content ecology, domestic manufacturers can only use products like “VR boxes” that have no user experience to expand the market downward. It once became a “joint gift” for e-commerce.
In less than a year, the domestic VR/AR start-up ended in this almost farce form.
Of course, Magic Leap on the other side of the ocean is not much better. After burning out billions of dollars, the first AR glasses Magic Leap One launched was rated as “a tragedy” by the industry.
Although Xu Chi had not yet started a business during this period, after witnessing the tragic situation of the industry from frenzy to depression, he deeply realized that when the next round of draughts came, AR terminals must have a “new definition”.
It’s just that this level of “new” is really enough to set off a real storm in the consumer market?
The wind rises again, and the heroes compete
“Magic Leap’s office is in Florida, which lacks a Silicon Valley-style innovation atmosphere.” When talking about his past work experience, Xu Chi told Huxiu that Magic Leap is relatively conservative in product development, and the bulky AR glasses are completely unreminiscent. To this is a trendy digital product.
Therefore, after founding Nreal, Xu Chi adhered to two principles in the formulation of the appearance of products: one is light enough, ergonomically designed to meet the requirements of daily carrying; Said to be decorations.
Under this concept, Nreal has developed the industry’s first “sunglass-style” AR glasses, Nreal Light. In terms of appearance, this product is no different from ordinary sunglasses. The matching binocular SLAM camera and RGB camera can satisfy many applications in various scenarios.
Nreal Light at CES 2019
Once this product was launched, it has received a high degree of attention in the industry. Compared with previous products of the same type, Nreal Light is not unrefined. Subsequently, Nreal launched the Nreal Air, which is thinner and lighter, emphasizing the viewing experience, which further unleashed the demand of the consumer-grade AR market.
Statistics from Strategy Analytics show that in the global consumer AR market in 2021, Nreal will have an exclusive market share of 75%.
At the same time as Nreal’s overseas siege, the Chinese market is also gaining momentum. KPMG’s statistics show that in 2021, the investment growth rate of China’s VR/AR industry will reach 544%, making it the fastest growing secondary track in the IT and information technology fields.
Some local governments represented by Shanghai have successively issued action plans to cultivate the Metaverse industry, providing policy support for this industry.
From a technical point of view, after several years of experimental exploration, the early off-axis optics and small prism solutions were gradually withdrawn, and replaced by BirdBath solutions and optical waveguide solutions that are currently popular in the industry.
The former has a moderate field of view, high light efficiency, and low cost. At present, consumer-grade AR products generally choose this solution. However, because the current optical overlay imaging of AR glasses can only render bright colors and cannot render black, products using this solution generally filter out natural light in the form of sunglasses and increase the contrast between bright and dark colors, which also limits the use of such products.
In contrast, the optical waveguide solution can be made into a fully transparent form, and the lens can be made thinner, helping to achieve the lightweight of AR glasses, but since its optical efficiency is only 0.1%-3%, manufacturers must choose a single color. Micro-LED high-brightness display can ensure normal look and feel.
Technical principle of optical waveguide solution, image source: Upload AR
However, compared with the lack of content ecology, the shortcomings of the above technical solutions cannot be regarded as problems. Just like Google Glass, its core function is real-time translation. In social scenarios, the wearer can directly see the translated text in different languages on the lens in real time. Although this function sounds a bit tasteless, it is already the best in the industry. Practical application.
A VR practitioner once told Tiger Sniff that the current status of the VR industry is that “hardware manufacturers and other software sides make content, and hardware manufacturers such as software sides expand the market, and neither side is willing to take the risk of taking the first step.” And this problem is more obvious in the AR industry.
As of July 2022, the number of Oculus Rift platform applications has reached 1,379; the number of Oculus Quest platform applications is 380; and Rokid, which is determined to “build the world’s largest AR application ecosystem based on self-developed systems”, currently has “more than 70 platform applications”. payment”.
Although the problem of lack of content cannot be solved in the short term, it has not stopped the pace of domestic AR manufacturers. From the background of each company, it seems that they all have the strength to occupy a place in the market.
Yingmu Technology and Liangliang Vision, which were the first to enter the game, served B-end customers for a long time in the past, and this year they also expanded to C-end. Although they did not have the development experience of related products before, they benefited from the long-term exploration of scenarios across different industries. Its R&D strength should not be underestimated.
There is also Rokid, which also focuses on movie viewing experience and thinness. Although its products are not as influential overseas as Nreal, they have proven themselves in the domestic market and have won the top sales on online e-commerce platforms for many times.
These start-up companies have been favored by capital frequently this year. Although the industry outlet makes them not need to worry about capital issues, more pressure comes from domestic consumer electronics giants, such as Thunderbird Innovation, incubated by TCL, as well as OPPO and Xiaomi.cell phonemanufacturer.
These companies are slightly inferior to the above-mentioned companies in terms of technical reserves, but they have stable R&D resources and user groups, which are advantages that startup companies do not have at all.
For example, Xiaomi’s “Glasses Camera”, which started crowdfunding on August 3, is not strictly an AR glasses, but only incorporates some AR technologies. The amount exceeded 1 million. As of August 16, the crowdfunding amount has exceeded 10 million.
An intuitive comparison is that there are more than 80 crowdfunding projects for AR glasses on the overseas crowdfunding platform KickStarter, but very few of them are expected to reach $500,000. Appeal is something startups can’t match.
Although this round of consumer AR market melee has yet to see a winner, it is certain that this round of AR investment boom is much more violent than before, and in the context of the overall sluggish consumer electronics market and innovation bottlenecks in traditional industries , the tendency of capital to AR industry is more obvious.
As can be seen from Nreal’s past several rounds of financing, its investors include top investment banks such as Sequoia and Hillhouse, as well as Internet giants such as Alibaba and Kuaishou. Rokid on the other side is not too far behind. Temasek, IDG Capital, Credit Suisse… AR head manufacturers seem to lack capital endorsements.
Nreal has secured over $240 million in financing
But the question remains, is this AR boom a flash in the pan, or is it a singularity in the industry? The answer still needs to go back to the industry to find out whether there has been any essential change in the AR industry in the past six years.
The most intuitive change is that the upstream industry chain of the AR industry is constantly improving. For example, in the thermal management of end products, due to the small size and relatively irregular shape of AR glasses, flexible heat pipes were commonly used in the industry in the past, but this will undoubtedly further increase the weight and volume of products. Mature, you can directly customize the aluminum-magnesium alloy thermal pad from the upstream supplier to solve it.
Another notable change is that AR entrepreneurs and investors are more pragmatic.
“The representative figures in the domestic AR industry basically have made achievements or accumulations in their respective fields.” Jiang Kai, the former director of the strategic investment department of Kuaishou, said to Huxiu, which is different from the AR industry that some people think is “following the trend”. , the current manufacturers of AR headsets and solutions, the founders are either believers who have persisted after experiencing or witnessed the “flash of demons” six years ago, or have achieved certain achievements in other fields. Innovative veterans who discover or appreciate new interaction opportunities.
In 2020, the rapidly expanding Nreal encountered serious financial problems, and Kuaishou cast an olive branch to Nreal at this time. In the communication and dialogue between Xu Chi and Kuaishou executives, the topics that the latter is most concerned about are “how is optical technology realized?” “How is engineering integrated?”
Similar scenarios are very common in the current AR industry. Compared with empty business plans, investors are more concerned about technical implementation issues.
However, although investors and practitioners are aware of how important it is to find application scenarios, no one has yet given a suitable answer to this question.
In the AR head display industry, current products can be divided into two groups according to their functions: one is the projection AR glasses represented by Nreal; the other is the information flow AR glasses represented by Google Glass.
The former emphasizes the viewing experience. As a consumer, in what kind of scenarios must you watch movies through AR glasses instead of direct display devices? The latter emphasizes information push. Ideally, when users wear AR glasses, they should be able to look up to see the nearest weather conditions; when users look at the station, they can see the nearest trains, but this involves For more complex information interaction issues, any non-customized scenario cannot provide supporting front-end data support.
The application scenario of Nreal Air as a car rear entertainment system
Therefore, for consumer-grade AR, the rigid needs of consumers have not been developed at all, which is the biggest weakness in the industry.
In addition, due to technical limitations, the interaction of almost all AR products is insufficient. Most operations of AR glasses such as Nreal that require mobile phone series need to be operated on the mobile phone. HoloLens 2 can realize some gesture operations, but it is an enterprise It is not as accurate as the two seemingly clumsy handles on the VR glasses in terms of spatial positioning accuracy.
still before dawn
Although domestic consumer-grade AR products have ushered in an explosion this year, in the entire industry, consumer-grade AR products are actually an anomaly. Statistics from Strategy Analytics show that 81% of AR glasses shipments in 2020 will come from the B-side, and the application scenarios include industrial,educate, medical and other real industries.
“For the development of B-side AR equipment, the docking industry can directly provide requirements and conditions. And from the perspective of B-side application scenarios, the requirements for device mobility are not high, and the requirements for portability are relatively low.” Liangliang Wu Fei, the founder of Vision, said to Huxiu that the biggest advantage of B-end products is that there is no need to develop application scenarios, because customer needs are scenarios.
Although the demand is clear, the development of the domestic B-end AR industry is not smooth, and the problem is mainly due to the constraints of the domestic objective environment.
“Our factory may be the first power plant to introduce the AR digital operation and maintenance system in China. The only problem is that I have never seen it as an equipment operation and maintenance engineer.” Wang Chenghao (pseudonym) told Huxiu that his Beijiang power plant had been in operation for a long time. In 2018, a set of AR head-mounted display equipment was introduced for the overhaul of the generator set, but after internal evaluation, the equipment did not significantly improve the work efficiency, and the reliability was worrying.
Almost all AR entrepreneurs are shouting “empowering the industry”, but at present, the improvement of AR for the industry is very limited.
Concept image of Hololens 2 for industrial applications. Image source: Engadget.com
In Jiang Kai’s view, the current level of domestic industrial development cannot fully support the development of B-side AR equipment, which is the root of the problem. “The premise of AR empowering the industry is that the digitalization and informatization of the factory are very high, which has high requirements for the digital foundation of the front end. For example, the manufacturing execution system must be able to achieve real-time interconnection with other systems, but Many domestic manufacturing industries are in the process of rapid development and construction, and the conditions are not fully mature.”
Xu Liang, who is engaged in the chip industry, believes that in many industries, the “visual production” that AR can achieve is in conflict with “automation”. For example, in the wafer production line, the standard for improving the efficiency of the production system is to reduce the presence of “people”. “Just like the Infineon factory, the daily operation and maintenance work can be carried out smoothly with only a few dozen people. Equipment inspection, The quality inspection is all done by the system.”
Another problem reflected in the “wafer manufacturing” scenario mentioned by Xu Liang is that the digitalization level of some electronic information industry factories has the ability of AR equipment to collect front-end information, but these industries do not have the need for visualization.
At present, at least in the industrial field, it is still unclear which scenarios are suitable for B-side AR equipment.
However, in the last year, domestic B-end AR manufacturers have also begun to make efforts to the C-end market, and their advantage is that they have more experience in adaptation work in different scenarios. For example, in September this year, Liangliang Vision will release a “subtitle glasses” specially designed for hearing-impaired people.
The working principle of this “subtitle glasses” is somewhat similar to the new generation of Google Glass unveiled at this year’s Google Developers Conference. It is different from AR glasses such as Nreal and Rokid that can emphasize the viewing scene, and the first C-end product that brightens the field of vision. Through the optical waveguide scheme, the dialogue between people can be displayed on the eyes in the form of “subtitles”.
Subtitle glasses display renderings, picture source: Bright Vision
Although the user group “hearing-impaired people” limits the scope of target users, it has to be admitted that Liangliang Vision is one of the few companies in the industry that can really catch what users just need.
In fact, Liangliang Vision’s first C-end product also reflects a strange situation in the AR industry: in the early stage of industry development, all manufacturers are looking for vertical market segments. In the traditional consumer electronics industry, this is a problem that manufacturers will only consider after the market is saturated at the end of product iteration.
This is even more obvious in foreign markets. Startups on KickStater have tailored a variety of usage scenarios for AR glasses: swimming, skiing, motorcycles… and they are only applicable to a single scenario, which is also the current consumption It is a common problem faced by the high-level AR industry, that is, it cannot adapt to general application scenarios.
Wu Fei believes that the key to solving this problem lies in the upgrading of the entire industrial chain, and there can be no shortcomings in every link. “Actually, compared with B-end products, consumers have higher requirements for C-end products. Therefore, the contradiction between high computing power, high power consumption, high-end display and other performance and thin and convenient product form is more intense, increasing the The technical threshold of consumer-grade AR hardware products has been raised, and the existing technology is actually unable to make products that take into account all aspects.”
Before that, the biggest variable for the entire industry was the release of Apple’s MR (mixed display) products.
According to a previous report released by The Information, Apple’s first MR device has 14 built-in cameras, and these sensors will be able to capture the external environment, facial expressions, body movements, etc., while completing a series of work such as VST perspective, positioning and so on.
The environment capture system composed of these 14 cameras also shows the advantages of MR products compared to AR products: digitizing the external environment where the user is located and integrating it with the virtual world, this concept is far ahead of the current AR industry. level of development. Wu Fei told Huxiu that Apple’s first MR product will bring an industry reshuffle.
However, due to the complicated technical implementation, Apple’s first MR terminal is not destined to be a “volume” product. According to Bloomberg’s previous calculations, the price of this device may be more than $3,000, which is also quite experimental in terms of price.
Of course, the significance of Apple’s first MR terminal is to explore new interactive methods for the industry, and it is also expected to become a platform-based application, attracting more developers to participate in the VR/AR ecological development. From this perspective, Apple’s MR terminal The significance to the industry is far greater than the product itself.
Some practitioners told Huxiu that in the future, the mobile Internet will definitely transition to the spatial Internet, and the core terminal will be AR glasses. It is true that in terms of the attributes of AR terminals linking the virtual world and the real world, it has the potential to improve productivity and even realize the “upgrade” of the Internet. But before that, manufacturers in the industry still need to create a story about the “AR scene”.