The Future: Augmented Reality (AR) or Virtual Reality (VR) Part 3

Let’s wrap this up

So we’ve talked about how neither AR nor VR will win the future. Put another way, it might be better to say that neither of these technologies will outright lose to the other because AR and VR aren’t directly competing against each other. Up to this point, I haven’t done a good job of defining how we are using ‘competition’. In this sense (taken from the tone of the YouTube video that started this whole conversation), competition refers to one technology becoming so popular as to be mass-adopted thereby relegating the other technology to the fringe, or even worse, the bottom of the pile at the back of the basement closet, collecting dust. That won’t be the case with AR and VR because these two technologies have different focuses and uses. The metaverse quadrant diagram reminds us that VR and AR are on completely opposite sides of the continuum, both vertical and horizontal. Recall that VR uses a virtual environment with the main focus being on the user (the user interacts with the environment). AR, on the other hand, uses the physical world with the focus being on the environment which interacts with the user. So, if we’ve put this to rest, why are we still talking about it? Well, there’s more to the story: AR won’t put VR out of business (and vice versa), however, they do and will continue to compete against each other for market share.

So wait…now there’s a winner?

Still, not really. Instead of calling one a winner, and conversely the other a loser, it seems more appropriate to say one is the market leader (even though technically they are in different markets) while the other is trailing. For the purpose of this discussion, we are only focusing on visually-based AR technologies. Here, VR is the star of the show, and there are a few reasons for that. First, VR has enjoyed a few years head start. Now, I understand that the history of AR and VR follow very similar if not exact paths, there is a natural division in their shared history. The underlying hardware required to do the fundamental things in both (visual) AR and VR are essentially the same. There are some other factors unique to each AR and VR that create this division in the historical timelines of both technologies. For example, where AR needs to be portable for usefulness in interacting with the physical world, VR has no such requirement. This portability itself creates issues and requirements associated with size, weight, and power, to name a few. The underlying hardware that makes VR possible has existed longer than the hardware has for (the successful adoption of) AR. The subtle difference here is in the phrase “successful adoption of”. Without the ability for the market to recognize value or use-cases for a technology, it will only reach a certain level of adoption within the market or society as a whole. Computers have had the necessary processing power to create, display, and even share virtual environments for a few years now. While this same hardware makes creating, displaying and sharing digital data to overlay on the physical world, the form was not conducive to mass adoption – it was too big and clunky. Because the technology form factor for VR was more appropriate, the market took notice and commercialization and academic development began. This allowed the technology to grow and accelerate under market drivers. AR’s history branches at this point because, while the underlying hardware is capable of technically accomplishing the goals of AR, size and other factors limit the usefulness of systems until the hardware capabilities increase while physical size decreases and the rest of those “other factors” are no longer inhibitors. At this point, AR is capable of entering the same growth path as described earlier. Mobile computing devices (smartphones and tablets for example) provide the underlying hardware for both AR and VR and will allow each to grow at incredible rates. It’s just that VR has a head start. I have heard a few people say that 2016 is the year of VR while 2017 will be the year of AR. I tend to agree.

And it’s just so hard!

#AR requires an unprecedented blend of science & research: neuroscience, optics, ergonomics, imaging engineering. –@metastefano, Salento AVR

— Meta (@metaglasses) June 15, 2016

AR is harder to accomplish than VR, and this influences adoption rates. The above tweet from Meta provides just a few examples of why. Without oversimplifying it too much, dealing with the real world is hard.  VR worlds are completely digital and so we can make them be whatever we want, and so it is easy to suspend belief because we know it’s not real anyway. In gaming applications for AR, users can forgive some physical inconsistencies that disregard the laws of physics because, after all, it is just a game. In non-gaming AR use-cases, these inconsistencies aren’t as forgivable and can lead to a lack of trust in the technology and ultimately a lack of adoption. If you turn off too many users early, you might not be able to get them back. But I digress…we were discussing why AR is harder than VR. In interacting with the physical world, you have to “know” a few things about it. For example, where you are in the world, and what the world around you looks like. The technology has to know not only the topography of the physical world but how a user interacts with it. The physical world is three dimensional (four if you count time) and is highly dynamic. Sensors need to be compatible with a user’s sensors (vision, hearing, tactile, etc.)  and really need to be equal to or exceed human capabilities (it wouldn’t be augmentation otherwise). Having the ability to track a user, their environment, and how they are interacting with that environment is pretty tough. In VR, the environment, physics, and the interaction are all man-made and controlled. I have a tongue-in-cheek saying – “it’s just 1’s and 0’s”. I’m not trivializing this, I know programming the virtual environments is difficult, but AR deals with something we have no control over (the physical world and all of its laws of nature), which makes it even harder than VR. As AR developers solve these hard problems, AR growth and adoption rates will accelerate and will likely match if not exceed the adoption rates of VR. Until then, however, VR will continue to lead in market adoption.

Social Issues

In order for AR technologies to “understand’ the physical world within which a user is interacting, AR devices must collect information in real time. The collection of real-world data has become somewhat of a hot-button social issue. There are many cases of complaints stemming from users of Google Glass and their attitudes in response to those complaints. Some restaurant owners banned patrons from wearing them inside their establishments as people complained about privacy issues. Google Glass early advocates and users, of course, responded and the heavy-handed responses lead to the coining of a new term: “Glassholes“. While some users wore the title proudly, social issues like these have the potential to slow down the growth and adoption rate of AR technologies. Without diving into the issue(s) directly, I do believe there are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, but I believe there will be a compromise. This compromise will come as people get educated on what the capabilities of the technologies are and how they’re used. After all, what is the difference between you unknowingly ending up in a photo or video from a smartphone or from a wearable? I don’t believe the differences are all that drastic. I think education and acceptance can and will go a long way, but both will take time. These issues will slow adoption rates of AR technologies until these issues are resolved. The social value of AR will likely help accelerate the education and adoption rates. If we can provide greater independence to visually or hearing impaired people, isn’t that a good thing?

AR vs. VR – The Final Word (I promise – for now)

Taking a step back and defining AR and VR through the metaverse technologies quadrant diagram helps to make the argument (or more rightly state the fact) that AR and VR are not competing against each other for total market saturation. The metaverse quadrant diagrams not only help showcase the differences between these two technologies, but it offers an easy way to understand the interactions between the technologies as well as a framework to categorize technologies. It is also helpful in understanding a purpose for, or focus of, a specific technology. Having a common understanding of these technologies allows for more baselined discussions by creating a singular starting point. Beyond this, the framework shows similarities and differences between technologies and shows how technologies interact with and complement each other.

In a future post, I’ll begin discussing the enablers that cross the continuum and allow these interactions. Through an understanding of the framework and these enablers, a fuller, more complete understanding of these technologies begins to develop. This understanding leads to the realization that metaverse technologies have the potential to create significant and meaningful social and economic impacts. Watching these technologies evolve has been exciting. Not more so than watching where they go from here.

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