When Facebook acquired Oculus VR in 2014, the virtual reality technology suddenly became the favorite subject of the news media. The concept of alternate realities has been toyed with since at least 1930’s, but it was not until the late 20th century that we finally got tangible results and products that a broader public could obtain. After what seemed like an eternity in the making, the Oculus Rift headset shipped to stores in 2016, only to be declared a disappointment less than a year later. This is not to say the project is a technological failure, the hype simply did not correlate with its real capabilities, and the product did not live up to the promise of a completely immersive experience in a life-like, multisensory computer-generated environment. Going back a few years, there were clear indications such outcome was bound to happen – none of the inherent technical problems that plagued the development of VR had been solved prior to release.
Virtual Reality Sales Drop
Most of the published articles on the Oculus headset and other gadgets gave a layman’s view of the product and consequently the public was led to believe the technology is far more advanced than it really is. Unrealistic expectations failed to account for issues such as high lag, low field of view, and most of all, the system specifications needed to power up a full 3D experience in real-time most consumer-grade PCs could not meet, and those that could exceed the price most people were willing to pay. What was supposed to be a smooth simulated world, turned out to be a fundamentally faulty and unnatural experience often accompanied with headaches, disorientation and simulation sickness. Though it is undoubtedly a breakthrough and can be fun, we are not yet ready for the real deal and most likely won’t be for another ten years down the line. In the meantime, instead of prematurely forcing an unfinished prototype upon the general public, we can take smaller steps and enjoy the benefits of augmented reality.
The Promise of Augmented Reality
Though related, the two technologies are not to be confused. While VR creates a new world, an alternate domain where we are temporarily transferred, AR changes the perception of the existing world by changing, or enhancing some of its olfactory and auditory elements. More in line with our current technological capabilities augmented reality adds something new and exciting while still allowing us to remain comfortably enveloped in a familiar environment. Understandably, it is not as immersive as VR, but the sensation it does produce is still interactive and much less dramatic or disruptive to the exposed mind.
AR systems require less computational power and can perform well even on mobile phones, which is a preferred quality over the stationary and encumbered experience of VR. In fact, the first game of such type was developed for mobile in 2000 by Bruce Thomas from Wearable Computer Labs. An augmented reality version of a popular iD Software’s game Quake, ARQuake was designed to be played outdoors using a head-mounted display resembling VR goggles, head tracker and GPS system to control the game.
Mixing Real and Virtual
Players can walk around in the real world with various digital elements superimposed augmenting information that is already being received from the natural environment. This way, Quake monsters or enemy vehicles can appear next to real-world objects and seamlessly integrate as if they are really there, more or less in sync with the physical reality. What followed was a string of publicly available gadgets: an AR Adobe Flash toolkit in 2009; Google Glass in 2013 – a hands-free, head-mounted display in the shape of eyeglasses intended for an easy voice communication with the internet, and Microsoft’s headset HoloLens in 2015. In 2016, an American software developer Niantic released a location-based game with AR elements called Pokemon Go. Soon after, tens of millions of users could be seen walking around the streets, parks, shopping malls and community centers chasing the fictional pocket monsters. It has far surpassed any VR attempt in both the number of users and generated revenue, despite being a relatively simple app with basic AR tools. The success of Pokemon Go showed the world is ready for a subdued virtual experience with the power to connect instead of isolate.
Not Just for the Tech-Savvy
Compared to a hollow promise of VR, augmented reality is much less ambitious, but more adaptable and readily accepted by the mainstream. The technology successfully implemented various scientific innovations to improve our everyday lives in a less intrusive way. Its progress continuous and steady, AR may have a long way to go before achieving its true potential and overcoming tracking and mapping issues and low resolution, but at the moment it is a very promising technology usable in a wide variety of fields. At the moment, the potential is realized mostly in the gaming entertainment sector and consumer applications, but the future undoubtedly looks promising for industrial , medical, construction, education, military and other services. Once we overcome certain computing and technical issues, AR will be able to achieve practical use in almost any field. With the goal to increase efficiency and productivity, the technology can be implemented in combination with MRI, CT or X-Ray devices to enable better visualization and more precise surgical procedures. Furthermore, simple daily navigation can become a much more pleasant and easy experience through the use of AR-enhanced GPS systems. Tourist attractions, sightseeing and museum visits can benefit from applications that bring history back to life.
Apple Undertakes New AR Projects
All major companies have embraced AR and right now seem to be abandoning efforts towards the rapid development of its digital sibling – Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple. All major companies have embraced AR and right now seem to be abandoning efforts towards the rapid development of its digital sibling – Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple. Tim Cook, Chief Executive Officer of Apple Inc., revealed the tech giant considers AR an investment into the future and is heavily investing in several hardware and software products and applications for iPhones and iPads. Seemingly never interested in VR, the company has been biding its time, observing the market and quietly working on the technology which they consider a bigger, better and more affordable opportunity to immerse into virtual worlds. Focusing on the mainstream instead of niche products, Cook maintains a mass-scale spread of AR is imminent in the near future.