Four Scenarios for AR and VR in 2020

Scenario planning is a tool used by futurists to gain insights into how future trends and strategic decisions may play out.

Below are four scenarios about the near-term future of the virtual and augmented realities technologies. They examine four possible alternatives: one in which both technologies fail in the marketplace, one in which both succeed, on in which only VR thrives, and another in which only AR does.

VR and AR Scenarios for 2020

Augmented Reality Thrives Augmented Reality Fizzles
Virtual Reality Thrives The Rise of Mixed Realities Gamer
Virtual Reality Fizzles Surging Employee Productivity The Big
Virtual Bust

Why bother to create multiple scenarios as opposed to forecasting just one? Because many people—including organizational leaders—tend to work with only one or two sets of assumptions. By laying out several plausible scenarios, they have the opportunity to see things from a variety of viewpoints. This encourages them to ask important questions.

Should a manufacturer of an AR device be prepared, for example, to sell version that does not have a front-facing camera in order to avoid some of the stigma that Google Glass faced? What are they assuming about the cultural factors related to a technology’s acceptance? Will devices become more marketable if they incorporate an AI element into their capabilities? If so, what would this look like?

Then there are employers who will soon be faced with purchasing decisions. When should they pilot new programs in order to evaluate the usefulness of AR or VR technologies? Can a good strategic plan for using such technologies them a leg up on the competition or, perhaps even more importantly, give their competitors a leg up? How could these devices disrupt the status quo in the same way the iPhone disrupted the both the cellphone and computing businesses?

The following four scenarios can only touch on such questions, but they can be used to spark a discussion on a variety of subjects. For employers, however, an even more useful exercise would be to have a team of experts and decision-makers go through the scenario planning process in regard to factors that could help make or break their businesses in coming years.

Scenario One: The Rise of Mixed Realities

Assumptions: VR and AR thrive and merge in the marketplace by the year 2020

Most AR and VR devices are now well into their 2nd, 3rd or even 4th generations, and they are coalescing around two forms called visors and specs. Visors tend to be used for working and gaming while specs are worn for day-to-day personal usage.

The visors are getting really good, with wide fields of vision, lightweight forms, excellent audio quality, and very little lag-time in terms of image generation. Although they haven’t yet replaced PCs, laptops and tablets, they have become an essential tool for a growing number of knowledge workers, technicians, mechanics and service workers. The visors can be used for either AR or VR purposes, and most gamers have their own customized versions.

Out in public, though, few people wear visors. Instead, they sport light-weight specs that can be operated by voice, hand movements (via gloves and rings), or smartphone. They’re not quite indistinguishable from regular glasses, but they’re quickly getting there. Some models don’t have front-facing cameras at all, just screens, GPS, accelerometers, gyroscopes and other sensors.

“I still use my phone as my main camera,” says one young mother, watching her daughter play in a park. “It’s less weird that way. But I love my specs. I don’t need to be constantly looking at my phone screen if I need information, to check my email, play a game or even make a phone call.”

People are, however, getting more accustomed to specs with barely discernable HD cameras. The mother at the park just sighs when I mention the camera models. “That’s the world we live in now,” she says. “A lot of us are getting resigned to the idea there’s always a camera pointed our way. But it still makes me nervous and resentful sometimes. I’ve no idea if my daughter will feel the same way when she gets older. Her generation will probably just be impervious to the whole thing.”

Scenario Two: Surging Worker Productivity

Assumptions: AR thrives in the workplace while VR still languishes

There’s been an explosion in augmented reality apps. AR is quickly changing the way work is performed, especially among knowledge workers and professionals.

“It’s like having a whole bank of PCs at your disposal,” says a web editor who spends most of her day wearing an AR visor. “I like to work using an augmented wall of virtual computer screens so I can easily and instantly grab text files, audio and video files, jpgs and the like. I weave them into my main screen. It’s so much faster than using the two physical screens on my desk. But I also need to talk to people all day, so I can’t be completely immersed in some VR session. I need the right mix of digital and real spaces.”

An engineer just laughs when asked if she uses a similar setup that includes many virtual computer screens. “I hate screens,” she says, “virtual or otherwise. Basically, I’m paid to tinker and innovate. Sometimes I’m tweaking real electronic components but sometimes I’m working just with digital ones. And I have fun with it. I’ve set things up so all my the digital electronic components are animations. For example, different capacitors look like different kinds of cats with long whiskers, resistors look like various flavors of licorice sticks, and integrated circuits look like something out of a Tron movie. I know it sounds bizarre but it really makes me a lot more creative and productive.”

AR is also starting to dramatically reduce training times for some jobs. A manager at an appliance repair shops says, “We can take new employees and send them into the field alone with only a couple of months of experience. They can aim a visor camera at a broken refrigerator part, for example, and the AR system can automatically call up a manual and make suggestions for trouble-shooting.”

Some experts believe we’ve barely begun to the tap the productivity-enhancing power of AR. By merging AR with machine learning systems, companies are increasingly able to take advantage of the combined strengths of people and AIs.

Scenario Three: The Big Virtual Bust

Assumptions: Neither VR nor AR gains the market share investors has hoped for

Despite years of hype and billions of dollars worth of investment, both AR and VR have mostly been a bust so far. Most employees and organizations continue to see these technologies as an expensive fad.

“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” says one executive at an automobile manufacturer. “We have a few designers toying with AR and VR, but most still just want to do their work using traditional CAD/CAM softwares. That’s seen as faster and more efficient.”

Nor has AR caught on in the consumer market outside of certain hobbyist niches. “I bought one of the visors,” says an MBA student. “It was cool for the first couple of days but then it just felt like a novelty toy. How many animated monsters can you shoot off your sofa without become bored to tears?”

VR has fared no better outside of a few specialized gamer communities. “Oh, yeah, I tried the latest VR gear, too,” says the student. “The latency still sucks, so you wind up waiting for the software to catch up to your actions. Not to mention the fact that my system continues to make me nauseous every time I use it. No thanks. I’ll stick with my console.”

However, hope springs eternal in the world of inventors. “It turned out to be a much tougher engineering problem to solve than we originally thought,” says a former startup owner. “And society wasn’t quite ready. But I think it’s an iterative, evolutionary process. We’ll get there in another five or six years.”

Scenario Four: Gamer Paradise

Assumptions: AR fizzles but VR thrives in the gamer world

The Google Glass stigma still hasn’t gone away, effectively making AR googles something akin to a taboo when worn in public. As for the workplace, it turns out few employees want to wear visors, especially given that little evidence so far that AR users are more productive.

“Except mechanics and technicians, who needs the extra hassle of working with glitchy software and screen lag?” asks one engineer. “And, I’m no fashion maven, but I don’t like to wear some kind of ugly toaster on my head all day.”

VR has, however, become all the rage. Ever since Oculus caught the public’s imagination, gamers have been poised and eager to spend large sums on the best possible VR games they could lay their hand on. Game developers were already skilled at creating compelling narratives in digital form. With the advent of quality VR devices and editing software, these companies have quickly designed new games around best-selling titles. These instant classics kicked off the VR revolution with a bang, attracting new startups intent on innovating in the new medium.

As VR has taken the gaming world by storm, employees have craved bringing the same VR experiences into the workplace. The biggest inroads have been in professions with engineering and graphics elements. For example, it is quickly becoming a standard practice to develop architectural designs with VR editors and then examine them with VR headsets. Meanwhile, various social media sites are ramping up their VR capabilities in order to allow their users to meet and play in a growing variety of virtual coffee houses and sports centers.

Key Takeaways

Even walking through these simple scenarios can provide some key takeaways:

  • First, the fact that none of these scenarios seems completely implausible suggests how uncertain the future is in regard to AR and VR.
  • Second, cultural expectations may turn out to be every bit as important as technological prowess, but the technology still has to be high quality or people will stick with their familiar technologies.
  • Third, it may turn out that AR combined with AI is the true “killer app” in the workplace.
  • Fourth, it’s still hard to know whether these technologies will expand primarily from the “grass roots” level of the gaming community or from workplace applications. Which serve as a better template: the introduction of personal computers or the introduction of smartphones?
  • Fifth, because it’s still uncertain how the technologies will spread, it may be wise for device manufactures and software developers to be prepared to pivot in a different direction once trends are more predictably established.
  • Sixth, the rise of the iPhone demonstrates such how important style is. The question is how to make these products in a way somehow enhances rather than diminishes a user’s sense of style.
  • Seventh, especially in the area of VR but perhaps also in the area of AR, it will be important that products get good initial reviews in order to ensure grassroots excitement for the technologies. The current battle between Oculus Rift and HTC Vive demonstrate just how demanding the gaming community can be, a trend that’s virtually certain to continue in the future.

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