AWE 2021 - A Flying Visit

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Draw & Code co-founder John Keefe was once a regular visitor to Silicon Valley, but with travel limited he has been missing the West Coast. AWE (Augmented World Expo) was the initial event to tempt him to trek to that part of the world several years ago, so it seemed inevitable that the first US-based AWE event in over two years would be his cue to dust off the passport. Here’s his dispatch:

The Augmented World Expo – or AWE for short – is where the augmented reality world comes to meet once a year. After the enforced absence of 2020, the slightly sterile streets of Santa Clara were once more awash with techies, dreamers and business card warriors from the US and beyond. It’s a show that has been pivotal to Draw & Code; it was the stage for our first international trade show presence and since then we have exhibited there consistently. This time was a little different as I was there just to stalk the halls and get acquainted with the innovations on show rather than to run a stand. 

Day one started with a series of suitably rousing talks, none more so than Ori Inbar’s opening keynote. Ori, the figurehead of AWE, emerged on stage in a Max Headroom mask, something that will have puzzled the young creators in the audience but provided older audience members with a not-so-subtle reminder that a digital world inhabited by avatars has long been in the works. After summarising the last year of XR developments and pandemic panics, he got into a game of ‘Metaverse or Shmetaversere’ with the audience responding to tech terms being yelled at them. This was not the only mention of the ‘M word’ that I encountered! 

Another inspiring talk was courtesy of Niantic’s John Hanke who outlined his vision of an AR metaverse that embraces the world around us, as opposed to shunning reality in favour of an all-digital world. Other highlights included Meow Wolf CTO Barbara Ford Grant outlining the tech behind their art, BRCVR talking about the creation of virtual Burning Man and Unity’s head of social impact interviewing creators behind AR projects that sought to confront racism and create safe spaces.

QXR Studios appeared on stage twice during the event, talking through a refreshingly different approach to AR. They are working on episodic, narrative-driven experiences using their own webXR platform. With a host of writers and artists with backgrounds that span technology, games and good old printed media, I found their vision a very interesting prospect nestled in amongst some of the more prosaic uses of XR on show.

The speaker programme was unparalleled for our industry and the organisers deserve kudos for getting nearly 190 women on to the stage to provide near 50% gender balance. However, this is immersive tech, so we should get immersed in the actual experiences and products. The show floor didn’t disappoint with AR headsets, VR headsets, volumetric capture tech and the latest software tools represented. Like a music festival that entices you with a stacked line-up but too little time to take it all in, between the world-leading conference talks, an expo full of fascinating exhibitors and all the periphery meet-ups and clandestine demos, it was hard to take it all in. As such, my highlights are far from comprehensive, but here goes…

Niantic Lightship demo at launch event in London.


Draw & Code are proud to be 8th Wall developer partners and we are used to seeing them rolling out incremental improvements and features; for AWE they treated us to their biggest innovation yet. This was the grand reveal of their ‘Reality Engine’. For an 8th Wall developer this gives the platform an exciting new twist; it means that mobile web AR can now be accessed on VR headsets or desktop computers. 8th Wall is all about boosting accessibility for AR and this could open up their platform for use in new ways.

New 8th Wall Developer tool called Reality Engine debuts at AWE 2021.

While my counterpart Andy Cooper was in London at the launch of Niantic’s Lightship platform, I was listening to some of the key players in its development talking and demoing its capabilities. This is Niantic’s attempt to woo the AR developer community with what appears to be a sophisticated and robust SDK that bears many of the hallmarks of the much vaunted AR cloud, a buzzy term that has taken a backseat to metaverse this year. After Niantic bought up a couple of key players in the AR cloud space, including 6D.ai, Lightship very much feels like a platform made by the AWE audience for the AWE content creator audience.

Volumetric video experts Arcturus were revealing a new integration for their Holosuite software that adds support for Scatter’s Depthkit Studio. This combination is likely to help democratise volumetric capture as it brings together Arcturus authoring tools with one of the most accessible capture software suites. In an example of how the AWE microcosm of the XR community can work, volumetric footage captured by Arcturus was running on the headset of a fellow exhibitor in the Santa Clara Convention Center, Tilt Five. 

On a previous AWE trip we happened to meet insiders from castAR and got an early taste of the technology they were working on. After the company sadly folded a few years later, the key players behind the project rebranded as Tilt Five and refocused on the tabletop games market. Since then the Tilt Five team have become cult heroes for many in the AR world. It was fantastic to see the headset looking ready to take on the world at AWE 2021. 

Tilt Five involves a tabletop hardware component to anchor the augmented images, it is solidly focused on one market and it is born from the ashes of a previous AR headset project. These same three things can be said of Campfire, a contender in the enterprise AR space. Laser-focused on the design visualisation market, Campfire uses a neat piece of hardware to enable shared tabletop viewing of 3D models. The headset itself was born from the ashes of Meta (no, not that Meta), a startup that created a very impressive AR HMD a few years ago, and the tech they developed thoroughly deserves a second chance.

While those two headsets have been around in some form or another for a while, it wouldn’t be AWE if you didn’t slip on a few pairs of augmented reality glasses that are new to you. Oppo’s AR Glass 2021 has parallels with Nreal as an AR headset that is tethered to a phone, but this is currently a very early market that is set to grow so there is room for competition. Oppo’s offering was certainly slick and a worthy contender in this space.

We also encountered other innovators such as cloud AR exponents YouAR and smartglasses contenders NuEyes who were not exhibiting but were talking through their latest products. In fact, there were spontaneous demos of tech everywhere you looked. That’s the spirit of AWE though; meet people, play with tech, talk about the possibilities. After over two years away, AWE felt as vital as ever.

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