Virtual reality (VR) has dominated the buzz over the last couple of years but, at the same time, augmented reality (AR) technology has taken incredible leaps in what's possible when superimposing computer-generated imagery and sensory data onto the real world. Be it headset-based AR such as Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap, or the explosion in smartphone-based AR at the hands of apps like Pokemon Go, AR is now at the forefront of public consciousness, morphing the way we interact with the world around us. Thanks to one AR startup, AR is beginning to have the same transformative effect on how we do business, too.
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Augment is an enterprise AR platform, with solutions across sales and marketing, architecture and design, and e-commerce. There's no headset, and Augment has free AR apps for Android and iOS (a la Pokemon Go). In tandem with the smartphone and tablet apps, the startup also offers an Augment Desktop app to preview and configure 3D models, and an Augment Manager app for businesses to manage of catalog of AR content and 3D product models.
The idea is to be able to take any 3D object (be it a custom-branded vending machine, a new pair of shoes, or a jet engine comprised of hundreds of modular components), take it apart, flip it over in your hands or see how it looks in the space in which you're standing, and then share that experience with your co-workers. More so even than the conventional definition of AR, Augment is more of an augmented virtuality platform; the objects can be customized, manipulated, and dynamically scaled for any environment.
Why It Works for Businesses
Augment CEO and cofounder Jean-Francois Chianetta said he envisions Augment as an AR platform that enterprises can use through an entire product lifecycle—from design and prototyping, all the way through to e-commerce and sales. Augment also integrates with Salesforce; the customer relationship management (CRM) giant had enough faith in the startup to invest $3 million in Augment's Series A funding round (through Salesforce Ventures back in March).
"Augmented reality is really exciting right now. We're at a turning point with the new [Google Project] Tango coming out in September, the Microsoft HoloLens, all these new devices and hardware [getting us closer to] true augmented reality. It's incredible the experience you can have with pure augmented reality," said Chianetta.
"When I started Augment in 2011, there was no augmented reality market," he added. "Now we have customers like Coca Cola, L'Oreal, Siemens. We have salespeople using augmented reality on tablets to show products in a natural way. We have retailers adding 'Augment' commerce buttons to their sites. We have architecture firms showing 3D-scale models of new buildings. We have a programmatic solution for a company to brainstorm and design a product, upload it to Augment, prototype and get feedback on that design, and hand off to salespeople for an AR demo to customers."
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Founders: Jean-Francois Chianetta, Mickaël Jordan, Cyril Champier
HQ: Paris, France
US Offices: New York, NY; Orlando, FL
What They Do: Enterprise augmented reality (AR) platform
What That Means: AR modeling for use cases spanning e-commerce, marketing and sales, architecture and design, and more
Business Model: Free apps for Android and iOS; Premium business apps and services
Current Status: Live worldwide
Current Funding: $4.8 million, including $3 million Series A round in 2016 from Salesforce Ventures
Next Steps: Platform development, customer growth, e-commerce partnerships
Inside the Platform
Chianetta, a lifelong programmer with a background in mechanical and software engineering, spent his career working on MEMS systems, 3D modeling, and user interface (UI) design and simulation. He said the smartphone is the best thing to ever happen to augmented reality.
"When I got my first smartphone, I said we finally have a device everyone can use, with systems like the gyroscope and accelerometer that are crucial for AR. That's how I created the first version of Augment," he explained. "The first version was very simple but Augment has been open from the start, so everyone has been able to add their own 3D models and we've been able to get a lot of feedback on what's useful. Coca Cola has their own app built on top of Salesforce so, from the Coke app they click on a 3D model, it launches Augment and it pulls up an AR simulation."
Chianetta officially incorporated Augment as a company in 2011 and, in 2012, the startup was accepted into France's LeCamping incubator (now NUMA). There, the idea for Augment evolved from simply an e-commerce tool for retailers into a larger platform encompassing design and prototyping, marketing, sales, analytics, and 3D content management and collaboration within an organization.
The first version of Augment was officially released in 2013, including a proprietary 3D modeling engine using cross-platform graphics framework OpenGL, which allows the AR objects to responsively scale based on whatever mobile device is using the Augment app. The platform's back-end cloud infrastructure runs on Amazon Web Services (AWS).
"We developed Augment's 3D engine from scratch, with the goal of making it the first mobile-only 3D engine. There's a lot of specificity on mobile across a wide variety of devices," said Chianetta. "We don't want a 3D object to break from iOS to Android so our engine recombines itself for every device, adding or removing graphical complexity and features to keep the right frame rate."
The Augment platform itself is broken down into three components: the Augment smartphone and tablet app for Android and iOS, Augment Manager, and Augment Desktop. The Augment app is where all of the 3D modeling happens, with AR object superimposed into whatever environment at which you point a smartphone or tablet's camera. If businesses buy the Enterprise Sales or Interactive Print premium plans, this also unlocks features such as custom branding, offline access, tracker scanning (a custom Augment barcode to scan physical items into fixed AR objects), and CRM integration with platforms including Oracle, Salesforce, and StayInFront.
Augment Manager is where product management and sales pipelines come in. The app includes a content management system (CMS) to upload and manage a catalog of 3D models and share those models with clients and coworkers. For marketing campaigns, Augment Manager also has an analytics dashboard to see when and where users are projecting specific models, and to track ROI metrics. It also allows you to see with which models sales reps are successfully converting customers.
Augment Desktop is for configuring and customizing more complex models with different materials, textures, and 3D animation triggers before uploading them to Augment Manager and the Augment app. The platform also has plugins to import models from other 3D modeling and design software. Chianetta used the example of architecture, construction, and real estate to illustrate how the platform works together.
"A third of our customers are in construction, architecture, and real estate," said Chianetta. "So an architect can go into Augment Desktop, load a 3D-scale model of the building and configure it. Or a construction company would use the Augment app to show the inside of a building schematic in the field. For a real estate company, instead of just showing a prospective customer a blueprint or a floorplan, they pull up the virtual building and we can go inside."
Business Plan Breakdown
Augment's market strategy is rooted in specific enterprise use cases. The company doesn't currently support any AR/VR headsets and doesn't produce white-label apps for resellers. On Augment's website, the company lists four primary solutions: Omni-Commerce (in-store and online retail), B2B Sales, Marketing, and Design. Focusing on those real-world applications, Augment has built a customer base around those use cases across architecture and design firms, manufacturing, and a few major brands.
For a five-year-old startup with 45 employees, $4.5 million in VC funding is a comparatively small amount, particularly when $3 million of that came only this year. Yet, unlike many startups nowadays, Augment has been generating revenue from the start. According to the company, Augment currently has more than 6,000 daily active Android and iOS users, and has passed two million total app downloads. As far as competition, Chianetta doesn't see platforms such as Magic Leap or Windows Holographic as direct competitors. In fact, he doesn't think Augment has any direct competitors in the space.
"One of the things I wanted from the start is to make AR as accessible as possible, available for anyone to download and play with, to experiment and help advance the technology. That's one of our biggest differentiators," said Chianetta. "The biggest competition we have is all the agencies that built their own augmented reality apps off of existing engines like Unity and Euphoria. We differentiate when you want to collaborate across a business or when you need a more dynamic environment combining AR with sales, marketing, etc. On that front, we don't really have any competition."
On the open accessibility front, Augment also runs a program called Augment EDU to give universities around the world access to free AR modeling tools. According to the company, the program has reached more than 30,000 students and teachers in 86 countries, who have collectively produced more than 9,000 3D models uploaded to Augment's database. The startup also counts several colleges and universities as paying customers.
"We opened the academic program to give schools, universities, students, classrooms, and teachers access to real 3D models to help evolve the technology. And that openness has given us the most valuable feedback in building out the platform," said Chianetta. "That's why people tend to think about Augment as a consumer company, even though we're completely B2B."
Ask the Experts: Startup Advice
Alex Taussig, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners is a big fan of Augment's technology but stressed that, with something as "cool" as AR, for businesses it's crucial to focus on real-world use cases and quantifiable value.
"Augment has found a way to take the 'window on the world'-style AR we find in popular consumer apps like Pokemon Go and bring it to an enterprise use case," said Taussig. "Clearly, there is some value to displaying a digital 3D object in the context of the real world when it comes to merchandising products or visualizing the impact of that object on a physical space. The company may be challenged, however, to translate that user experience into a real business case for its customers. Pricing may be adversely affected. I would advise them to hone in on the quantifiable value they are selling, beyond the obvious coolness of the technology."
Roseanne Wincek, Vice President at IVP, said that while Augment's technology is very cool and apps like Pokemon GO have shown us how AR can create an extremely compelling and engaging interface, she echoed Taussig's sentiment that the startup needs to provide more concrete value for enterprises.
"I think that Augment will face pressure as it's AR middleware rather than a platform," said Wincek. "The image rendering will commoditize over time or be integrated into other parts of the stack. Augment should use their head start and maturity to create applications and value for the end consumer of the AR, the user, through direct enterprise or consumer applications."
Andrew Schoen, Associate at NEA, focuses on enterprise and consumer technology investments for the VC firm. Schoen said Augment solves an acute problem for specific sets of customers—like a brand salesperson showing retail store managers what a display unit might look like in their actual store layout. Schoen sees this as a major strength of the platform, but cautions Augment not to let individual use cases obscure the bigger picture.
"Augment is a rare breed within the AR space [as] they have an actual product in market, it's being used by actual enterprise customers, and it's generating actual revenue," said Schoen. "While their current TAM [target addressable market] is limited to a specific set of use cases, the trick is that the technology they're building is a trap door into a bigger market: Augment is in pole position to become the de facto platform for housing and deploying 3D assets in AR. That's a big vision, and it's important that they not lose sight of the bigger vision while satisfying the demands of their early paying customers. Losing a customer is bad but losing sight of the big vision is worse."
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