Amazon’s Sumerian Project Takes a Huge Bet on AR, VR
Amazon is no stranger to entering new markets — the company, which began as an online store for books, has expanded into just about every market segment and now offers capabilities like cloud compute server farms, smart speakers, and 3D engines. It’s also made a huge bet on AR and VR as future drivers of content authoring, and written an all-in-one development platform called Sumarian that’s meant to make covering both Android and iOS devices simple in the future.
Sumerian is platform-agnostic and priced by usage; it’s designed to integrate with other Amazon Web Services. Developers can use its 3D environments to quickly design applications with little need to master code monkeying. The company told PCMag it decided to enter the VR/AR space for three reasons: the emergence of smartphone AR (and likely the success of applications like Pokemon Go), VR opportunities in the business-to-business market, and “helping AWS customers solve pain points with things they were already trying to do.”
“These signals were strong enough for us to actually start getting into the process of designing Sumerian. In the classic Amazon way, we started working backward from customer use cases and then eventually funding a development team to build the product,” Amazon VP Marco Argenti told PCMag.
Argenti also talked about the importance of cameras to the AR experience, which makes sense given Amazon’s earlier efforts in this space. The unloved, unlamented Amazon Fire Phone may have set precisely zero worlds on fire, but it packed several distinct technologies that were intended to leverage multiple cameras to produce advanced effects (Dynamic Perspective), or identify the world around the device (Firefly). In 2014, these capabilities were novel, but didn’t offer enough practical usefulness to win an audience for the first-generation phone in a crowded market where most of the air in the room was already being taken by Samsung and Apple. Whether you liked the Fire Phone or simply didn’t care — and let’s be honest, statistically, almost nobody cared — Amazon has been paying attention to the question of AR and VR for years before this.
The goal with Amazon Sumerian is to consolidate the creation process, eliminating repetitive work and emphasizing streamlined building. Users can either work with default templates or create scenes themselves. Here’s how PCMag describes the process:
It starts with either choosing a template or jumping straight into creating a new scene. Some of Sumerian’s default templates include scenes like office spaces, training rooms and warehouses, a cargo ship, and an outdoor campfire. The main editor supports WebGL and WebVR, and is laid out in the same way as many of the low-code tools we’ve tested.
On the left is an entities panel. An entity is essentially a table in a database that helps you manage the data getting pulled into your app. Below that is the asset window, which is where you can search for the objects you want to pull into a scene or open the full asset library of all Sumerian’s 3D models. Roche said Sumerian pulls in a number of open-source object libraries and integrates with the Sketchfab API. Amazon is also interested in integrating with platforms like TurboSquid and Google’s Poly AR/VR object library, he said. You can import your own assets into Sumerian as well and drop them into a scene.
Sumerian is compatible with 3D engines like Unity, Unreal, and Vuforia, as well as ARCore, ARKit, and Windows Mixed Reality. It supports WebGL, WebAR, WebVR, and an upcoming standard, WebXR. Once WebXR is finalized, Sumerian content will be able to run directly in-browser. Its “Hosts” are designed to leverage Amazon’s work in AI to perform complex actions or answer questions. Right now, Amazon has two default hosts — Cristine and Preston — but it’s not hard to imagine a future version of Alexa having a body to go along with her voice.
The extensive demos PCMag saw showed Hosts active in a variety of scenarios, including a simulated meteorologist and virtual caregiver. Human beings have a well-known tendency to anthropomorphize artificial life and robots, so giving people a physical presence to identify with an artificial construct is a smart way to encourage them to develop positive feelings towards it — provided, of course, that you don’t tip over into the Uncanny Valley.