Spectacles powered by wireless networks and smart watches will enable users to bring seemingly inanimate objects to life and watch interactive billboards, writes Tony Glover
In less than two years, Arabian Gulf consumers will be using futuristic mobile communications services resembling something from a sci-fi movie.
According to industry watchers in the United States, three-dimensional digital technology will enable mobile communication users in the UAE to watch interactive billboards and make seemingly inanimate objects come to life in front of their eyes.
These and a host of other apparent miracles will be made possible by the technology industry's new frontier - "augmented reality" (AR). These services will be accessed not only by smartphones, which could start to look like museum pieces in a few years, but by new products such as Google Glass, futuristic spectacles powered by wireless networks, and Apple's long-anticipated smart watch.
The US wireless technology company Qualcomm is already developing ways of using three-dimensional digital imaging to augment everyday objects. Consumers can visualise how domestic appliances will actually look in their homes before ordering them by using Qualcomm's Vuforia AR technology.
Qualcomm's digital imaging is also merging the gap between digital gaming and real-life toys, enabling children to feel as though they are bringing their playthings to life.
Although America is developing AR technology first, the US-based research company Frost & Sullivan predicts that, by the end of next year, consumers in the UAE will be able to access the new services first-hand via products such as Google Glass, due to be launched this year.
"It won't really be until late 2014 that the whole package around these glasses starts to come into effect.
"There is opportunity in the Middle East and Africa, particularly in the Gulf States, for these products to have an effect," says Frost & Sullivan's information and communications technology director Andrew Baul Lewis.
But there are some big challenges ahead for mobile operators such as du and Etisalat. Products such as Google Glass and Apple's rumoured smart watch require far more support than a straightforward smartphone.
"More than any other group of services created to date, delivery AR services to a single customer relies on a big, wide ecosystem," says Mr Lewis.
"Without the sensors in your environment - be it your house, car, office, the store or in your arm - then the various AR service dreamt up by the techies will not be able to function … Smartphone apps are child's play in comparison," adds Mr Lewis. Introducing such futuristic technology to the Gulf will not only present a challenge for Etisalat and Du but also for regulatory agencies. According to Frost & Sullivan, the authorities will need to ensure that their citizens' privacy issues are protected and that security and safety issues are addressed.
"Who will know if you are playing games or video chatting while you are driving and what effect will that have on you driving ability?" asks Mr Lewis.
The global corporations will also have to thrash out a host of legal and copyright issues as competing brands use the new AR technology to hijack one another's customers.
"I expect there will be a fight for the [commercial] rights surrounding this. For instance Coke would likely be upset if Pepsi showed a Pepsi offer every time you saw a Coke ad or billboard and Pepsi would feel the same were positions reversed," says the Silicon Valley industry watcher Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.
He adds that AR services will soon start to effect not only marketing of consumer products but will increasingly encroach on many other aspect's of people's lives.
"While ads appear to be getting much of the initial focus, expect this to expand to enhancing experiences with static images in books, magazine and in the real world," says Mr Enderle.
IT industry analysts are predicting that the kind of AR services expected to be available in the Gulf at the end of next year will be just the beginning for the new technology. AR has the power to transform the way we see our environment and will have dramatic and as yet unforeseen consequences for the way we live and interact with our environment.
"We are clearly at the very beginning of what is likely to be a reality-changing event. You see our reality is based on what we perceive and this technology will change that perception," says Mr Enderle.
If the industry watchers are right, then AR is likely to have a far greater effect on our lives than any of today's mobile communications technologies, threatening the survival of some of today's leading internet-based brands.
Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at the research company Forrester, says Google Glass should be on every company's radar and will have as much effect on mobile communications as Facebook, Amazon, and iPhone put together.
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