When I was 8 or 9 years old, we had a football game on. There was this yellow line where all the players would start, and another yellow line a little further down the field, which was where the attacking team was trying to get. That was all fine. The problem was that somehow, the lines kept moving.
I had seen the referee paint down the lines on the grass at my soccer games, and there was no way those could move. These lines kept moving though, after every play. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and asked my dad, “how do they keep moving the lines?” He told me, “those lines aren’t actually on the field, they’re only on the TV so we know what’s going on.”
“So the players can’t see the lines?” “Nope.”
The lines weren’t real, and the players couldn’t see them. But what if they could? Wouldn’t that be awesome? I didn’t know what it was called at the time, but this was revelatory experience for me about the power and potential applications of augmented reality.
Now that I’m a bit older and know what a line of scrimmage, first down, and AR are, I’m more excited than ever about AR. However, it’s a similar, but also completely different, technology that’s stirring up the tech world: virtual reality.
Virtual reality is creating a lot of excitement, and with good reason, thanks to the recent releases of the HTC Vive and much anticipated Oculus Rift. A notch below those is Samsung’s Gear VR, and Huawei just announced a very similar headset it’s calling Huawei VR; both of these require slotting in one of the company’s flagship smartphones to work. Tech like Google cardboard bring up the rear (which is totally awesome in its own right).
By contrast, since the Google Glass debacle, in the augmented reality market it looks like Microsoft’s HoloLens is the only real contender at the moment. That may not be for long, it looks like Facebook is set to make its own AR glasses, and nobody really seems to be sure what Magic Leap is up to. There’s also no telling what Apple and Google may have up their sleeves.
Google Glass reminded me exactly of Vegeta’s scouter from Dragonball Z, no wonder I’m excited.
The question I have now is, what is the future, AR or VR?
The easy answer is both. I think both AR and VR are going to be huge, but in terms of being something everybody uses all the time, “the next smartphone”, I’m betting on AR.
Having said that, VR certainly seems to be the future of gaming, it seems perfectly suited for that kind of immersive experience. VR could also be amazing for certain occupations, maybe coding or designing, and for training, I’m thinking combat and surgery as just a couple of possibilities. VR will also likely completely change the way we consume certain media, 360 video for instance, and viewing live events from the perspective of actually being there.
All of these ideas, however, involve using VR for particular activities, but not all the time. I think the way VR goes beyond that is either by making it possible to stay in touch with reality, or by completely shifting everyone to a virtual reality. One of the ways in which VR makes it possible to stay connected to reality is by making it possible to receive and respond to notifications. That seems almost essential if people are going to be in a virtual reality for extended periods of time, but at the same time I think that kind of breaks the feeling of being in a virtual experience if you suddenly get a text from your mom.
The other option is to just make VR reality. Imagine if instead of going to work, all of a company’s employees put on their VR headsets and just shared the same virtual reality, interacting as usual, but in a virtual office. Imagine that at home too, you can interact with your family and friends by all sharing the same reality. Sounds a little scary and dystopic, but it also sounds feasible.
In order for VR to reach that kind of state though, I think the technology has to get a lot better, fundamentally, you can’t constantly feel its physical effects and still be truly immersed in a virtual reality. Headsets have to become extremely light and comfortable, or there needs to be an alternative to headsets altogether, there can’t be strain on your eyes, the graphics have to be completely realistic, and interactions with others in virtual spaces have to feel life like. I don’t doubt that the technology might eventually reach that point, but it could take a long time, there are a ton of social issues to consider, and unless we do ever get to that point, it seems VR will be limited to certain applications like gaming and certain types of media consumption.
AR, on the other hand, seems ready for the spotlight, as soon as somebody makes it, and makes it right. A heads up display in the form factor of glasses could completely change our lives, imagine looking at someone and having their LinkedIn profile hover in front of them, or see edits on a piece of paper being made in real time by someone in another country, or check out what a pair of shoes looks like on your feet before you buy them, or have the images in newspapers and magazines move (think Harry Potter), or design and play with a 3D model with your hands, or…you get the idea, the list goes on and on. The potential applications for AR are limitless, and it’s not just for entertainment, it can be incredibly useful and informative.
AR doesn’t separate you from reality, it enhances reality, and that makes it a very practical technology, and something that can become essential to everyday life. If an AR headset can be made in the form factor of reasonably sized pair of glasses, it could quickly become something everyone owns and wears. VR may be capturing imaginations, literally and figuratively, but right now, I believe that the future is AR.