AWE USA 2021: Post-Event Summary


The Augmented World Expo (AWE) USA 2021 took place in Santa Clara, CA from 9-11 November as a hybrid event. This meant that part of the event was held in-person at the venue as well as part of the event being held virtually online. There were over 5000 attendees, over 200 exhibitors, and over 300 speakers from a wide range of industries. Large companies from industries like entertainment, automotive, technology, and retail attended the event – with industry thought leaders presenting and talking about the latest developments with the augmented reality (AR) world.

Attendees and speakers of note

There were representatives from many industry-leading companies in attendance at AWE USA 2021, including these shown below:

(Image source: AWE USA 2021)

High-profile speakers included:

  • Principal UX Designer - Hololens, Microsoft
  • Director, Global Business Development, XR, NVIDIA
  • AR/VR Program Lead, Philips
  • President & Chief Product Officer in R&D, RealWear
  • Product Manager, Media & AR/VR, Shopify
  • XR Lead, T-Mobile
  • EHS XR and Technology Program Manager, Tesla Inc.
  • Chief Technology Officer, Snap, Inc.
  • VP & GM, XR, Qualcomm
  • Vice President, Brand Partnerships, Roblox Corp
  • EVP, Live & Location Based Entertainment, Lionsgate Entertainment
  • Global Head of Virtual Reality, Go-to-Market, HP
  • Director, Technology Innovation Group, Disney Studios Content
  • VP, Manufacturing Technology, The Boeing Company
  • Head of Immersive Technologies, P&G
  • Global Business Development Lead, FRL & Instagram, Meta

Event Highlights

Day 1

Day one kicked off with the traditional keynote from AWE founder Ori Inbar. He was followed on the main stage by Niantic CEO John Hanke, and Qualcomm’s VP and GM of XR, Hugo Swart. Inbar gave his State of XR report which concluded that mass XR adoption has arrived. A lot of talk around the event on Day 1 was around the concept of the ‘metaverse’ and Inbar joined in, playing a game called ​​“Metaverse or Shmetaverse” that involved reading a trend or application in XR and asking the audience to respond with whether it was good (“metaverse”) or bad (“shmetaverse”).

Hanke spoke about the responsibility that XR must carry as technology in general undergoes a “platform change”. He contends that this platform change is toward the “real-world metaverse”:

“We think we can use this technology not to escape from reality into VR but to build a better reality – a better world. This is an opportunity to shape these technologies; decide how much humanity, how much human values gets incorporated.”

Hugo Swart of Qualcomm then made a few announcements including the acquisition of Clay AIR and the release of Snapdragon Spaces, an XR developer platform for creating experiences for head-worn devices.

Around the panels and discussions, there were further announcements from Chicken Waffle (including a “creator fund”) and 8th Wall (a new AR engine – “Reality Engine” and their new Discover Hub).

A particularly interesting panel consisting of futurist Cathy Hackl, author John Buzzell, Upland CEO Dirk Lueth, Christina Wootton of Roblox, and Lindsey McInerney of AB InBev focused on the role of gaming in the metaverse and the importance of NFTs. The discussion progressed through avatars, expressions, NFTs and ownership. On NFTs, McInerney said:

“Today, a lot of the NFTs that you see are people dropping art… I don’t think that’s the future of NFTs, I think that’s where they are now. In the future, NFTs will provide ownership for any item that you own in that digital experience.”

Throughout the panels and speeches by industry leaders, a common theme was the metaverse, whether building it or defining it. There were varied opinions on the subject, but most people agreed that it is playing a role in driving the adoption of XR devices and applications.

Day 2

As expected, Day 2 of the conference had fewer announcements than day 1 - with the focus turning to the celebration of XR and the opening of the Expo floor and “Playground”. The day started on the Main Stage with panels on “reinventing the camera” and “XR for brands” then a presentation on “The Race to Build the Metaverse” by Charlie Fink.

Lauren Goode of WIRED hosted a panel with Snap CTO Bobby Murphy and lens creator Brielle Garcia. The discussion again turned toward the metaverse, with Murphy saying that they do not use that word at Snap, but rather are looking to create an “augmented reality future”. Garci also contended that:

“The metaverse is the internet. It’s the essence that emerges from spatial, social and internet experiences. The internet is still the internet we had in the ’90s, it’s emerged over time… I don’t think there will be a moment where we say ‘this is the metaverse.’”

Next, Unity Technologies head of AR/VR Ad Innovation Tony Parisi, Publicis Media Head of Innovation Keith Soljacich, and Media.Monks SVP of Growth Catherine D. Henry joined the panel. The discussion made it evident that XR really is here. How Soljacich put it:

“We’re coming out of the proof-of-concept phase. We’ve proved it out, especially in terms of AR. Now we’re going into the next phase and we can go so much deeper in terms of immersive experiences.”

Henry argued that the next phase is “virtualization”: taking everything we do and putting it into a virtual landscape. Fink then spoke about building the metaverse:

“You cannot tie the metaverse to a headset. It has to be on every device, even if the experience on a headset is much better.”

In the afternoon, many sessions focused on ethics and safety. The sessions discussed the importance of establishing safety in the context of this period of the explosion that the industry is currently experiencing. Making safety an important aspect of the metaverse is essential now, while the concept is still being developed. This is the same for trust in the metaverse, which will be evident in the increased adoption of XR.

Then, there was some news at the end of the day: CareAR acquired CraftAR and Vuzix teased new glasses.

Day 3

The third and final day included more panel discussions, more expos, and the closing address. Following on from Day 2, the conversations around privacy, security, and safety in the metaverse continued. First on a panel featuring, XR Safety Initiative founder Kavya Pearlman, Voices of VR host Kent Bye, NativeTrust Consulting, LLC Digital Policy Advisor Kristina Podnar, and Baltu Studios co-founder and CTO Dennis Bonilla.

Bonilla focused on risks and the concern around the amount of data collected about people, including telemetric data from movement. Most people understand a certain amount of the data is collected, but do they understand the extent thereof? People believe laws protect them, but this is not always the case.

Kent Bye then presented a discussion on ethics and ethical considerations in XR and spoke about being consumers of good governance and safety. A framework for incorporating ethics that Bye looked at was the AREA” approach – an acronym for “anticipate, reflect, engage, act. Specifically, he stated that the idea of ethics cannot only be a checkbox that needs to be completed but rather should be incorporated throughout the design process.

There were also talks about social VR experiences and avatars, and a panel on XR gaming. VRrOOM CEO Louis Cacciuttolo gave a talk on “the phygital revolution” of virtual and hybrid experiences:

“Phygital events that link the physical and the digital have to be social, and even more social in the digital world, or they will fail to attract an audience.”

GamesBeat lead writer Dean Takahashi moderated a panel discussion on XR games featuring Resolution Games CEO Tommy Palm, Pantomime Corporation CEO and president David Levitt, gaming writer and community moderator Sonya Haskins, and Patrick Hackett of Skillman & Hackett. The discussion focused on the cycles of technology, innovation in XR, and the distinction between AR and VR.

The day, and the event, ended with Ori Inbar’s closing address and the awarding of the last Auggie Awards.

AWE USA 2022 will take place in Santa Clara, CA from 1-3 June 2022.

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