I had the wonderful experience recently of reading a short op-ed piece on LinkedIn by a technology entrepreneur who had decided that AR- Augmented Reality was killing its “older and more dorky sibling” VR- Virtual Reality. As VR is still developing and evolving, I have to say I was surprised to be reading this. He also went and made a statement “as AR becomes more mainstream..” And, this article is something of a rebuttal to this mode of thinking and also there is a criticism here. Don’t make absolute statements in emerging tech spaces when you are not across everything that is going on.
Let’s go back to basics and talk about the properties of each technology. They both come from the same base, after all. Virtual Reality is a form of technology involving a headset, with one or more screens, which fools your eyes and mind into believing you are seeing a three-dimensional image in front of you. In this way, we can make fantastic realms of science fiction, fantasy or simply a house that has not been built yet seem realistic in a way that your mind registers you are there. There are those sketches where people in VR, walking along a perfectly solid floor, but the simulation is showing them high on a plank above a city- many people cannot cope or get vertigo or similar and yet, they are in they are physically in their office.
The type of Augmented Reality most of the public would have experienced, takes place on one’s mobile device where the camera is live-feeding an image in and the software is overlaying an image and playing audio. More advanced devices such as the forthcoming Microsoft Hololens headset will offer a mixed-reality experience where three-dimensional images and overlays are possible as well as 2D images.
So VR locks you away from the world and gives you another, and AR ovelays over what you are seeing right now, right, got it. So “when AR goes mainstream…” AR went ‘mainstream’ when Pokémon Go launched mid-2016. Thousands of people gathered in cities across the world chasing Pokémons on their phones while they walked around the cities. Their substantial core fanbase still play and the game has been updated many times since. This was hardly a subtle introduction to the world. I have seen AR apps being used for museums and other educational purposes and they have mainstream audiences. It is hardly a fringe technology.
In a business context, VR is an amazing tool for simulation. No other medium has the ability to generate empathy, or create a variety of experiences like VR. In terms of visualisation, the VR experience is so powerful and personal, that it cannot be discounted. The ability to train in a simulation environment, or to offer an experience that cannot be replicated in the real world is unparalleled. Simply, it makes the user feel like they are physically there, be they walking on Mars, on the sea floor, or down the bottom of a new mine-site that has not been created yet. Add to this that the equipment is gradually shrinking, haptics (devices that help give you feedback on your body- vibrations, hot, cold etc.) are improving and the visual fidelity is growing, then one quickly comes to the point of view that we are still at the start of something very powerful and no-one really knows where it is going to go.
AR does not do any of that, but what it can do extremely well, is to feed the user additional information. It can add to the experience- suddenly you see an imaginary pocket monster on the street and you need to capture that or here is additional information about this art exhibit you are looking at, but you are not creating a whole environment, you are using it and adding to it.
Both AR and VR are very powerful tools for industries like education, architecture, tourism, mining, OH&S and more, but they do different things. Certainly there are opportunities in both. I personally do not think the real possibilities of AR will open up until we have access to a cost-effective, consumer headset which can overlay reflexively over our vision, but that will come in time. Both have the ability to create unique experiences for your staff or customers, but they do very different things- there is no way one is killing the other, they are cross-feeding the developments in both.