The Promise and Perils of an AR/VR Future

Smartphone markets have started leveling out, so tech investors are looking for the “next big thing.” No one is sure what that’s going to be, but a lot of money is being bet on augmented and virtual reality.

After all, the AR/VR market is projected to explode in coming years, reaching $120 billion by 2020, according to projections by tech advisors Digi-Capital.

Neither technology has, however, yet lived up to the hype so far. Why? Because generating three-dimensional images on the fly is a very tough engineering challenge. And even if companies can get the hardware right, providing the software content that runs on the devices is also a major hurdle.

For now, most of the news about AR/VR focuses on six key areas:

  • The Tech: For the industry-watchers, there are new AR/VR stories every week, if not every day. For example, the microprocessor company ARM just brought out two new processers designed to support augmented and virtual reality features in smartphones. This amounts to a major bet that there will be a burgeoning market for these applications. In other news, VR company Magic Leap recently announced a program that will permit ten external developers to work with its closely guarded technology.
  • The Applications: One reason investors are so excited by these technologies is that the applications seem nearly infinite. Although VR is often associated with personal gaming and AR with workplace-related applications, the lines between these two realms are blurring. Below are several examples:
    • VR as an architectural tool: Design firm NBBJ is working with the startup Visual Vocal to build a virtual reality platform for architects. Others have demonstrated how the VR headset HTC Vive can be used with the VR Editor of Unreal Engine (and suite of game development tools) to create a VR architectural design tool.
    • VR as a rescue tool: Researchers at the Swiss university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have developed an AR visor that allows firefighters to see through smoky conditions with help of a thermal camera.
    • AR as a productivity tool: In a pilot project, the logistics company DHL has begun equipping its warehouse workers with AR-enabled smartglasses. The glasses help employees fulfill orders more productively, reportedly resulting in fewer errors and a 25% increase in productivity.
    • AR/VR as training devices: Energy companies started using VR to train oil rig workers back in 2014, and the healthcare industry has since followed suit. Some hospitals are using VR to guide medical practitioners through procedures like CPR and and Foley catheter insertions. Meanwhile, there are plans to use AR to train everyone from football players to factory workers.
  • The Perils: Filmmakers are already depicting dystopian worlds in which AR is used in dehumanizing or unethical ways. One example is Keichi Matsuda’s film Hyper-Reality, which illustrates how overwhelming AR could become in a world where information and advertising are utterly pervasive. Another example is Ben Dickinson’s Creative Control, which shows how these new technologies ramp up the anxieties and insecurities of people whose public, private and imaginary lives are fused in disturbing ways.

From the film Hyper-Reality

  • The Skeptics: Google Glass was one of the first forays into an optical head-mounted display with some AR capabilities, but the media coverage of the product was brutal as people objected to the head-mounted camera that was an obvious feature of the product. Those who sported the product prototype were sometimes stigmatized and dubbed “glassholes.” No one can be sure if a similar fate awaits future products. Some worry that these products will amount to little more than an overpriced fad.
  • The Investors: Investments in AR and VR firms hit an all-time high of $1.1 billion, according to a report by Digi-Capital. Some individual investments in these technologies have been enormous. Facebook, for example, famously acquired virtual reality startup Oculus for over $2 billion.
  • The Definitions: As the technologies emerge, many journalists focus on explaining what AR and VR are and how they differ. Others are more concerned with how the two technologies fit together under the common umbrella of “mixed reality.” Nicholas Kitonyi notes that “tech enthusiasts are developing more innovative products, which continue to narrow the gap between the two in such a way that some cannot actually tell the difference.”

Overall, the trends in the area of VR and AR point toward the development and release of numerous products over the next several years. However, there’s no telling exactly how the marketplace will greet the influx of these devices. There could easily be a bust at the end of the current boom, or we might see a culture-changing explosion and a virtual reinvention of day-to-day reality.

Editor’s Note: The feature image used in this story is from the referenced film Creative Control.

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