Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have a highly symbiotic relationship. While the two technologies may often be lumped together, but there are a slew of differences that will affect how each is adopted in the future. Still, what’s good for one is often what’s good for the other, and interest in both has surged in recent years.
So, to recap. Augmented Reality is distinct from virtual reality due to, as the name suggested, an altered view of the world, with devices that provide information to users based on their environment. AR has already seen a few attempts to bring it mainstream, with the infamous Google Glass aiming to provide users with a live heads-up display and Pokemon Go proving a short-lived phenomenon that nevertheless introduced the concept to a wider audience. AR goes back longer than many think, with pilots using basic AR overlays to help train themselves in the use of aircraft and help with issues such as landing vectors.
The progression of virtual reality has been less defined by large forays into public consciousness and more about gradual adoption. Early VR technology was fairly divorced from the headsets that modern individuals are familiar with, including the “Sensorama,” a bizarre booth for viewing short films augmented with stereo sound and even scents. This influence can be seen in modern 4D films, viewed largely by the public as a novelty. Taken more seriously are modern VR headsets such as the Vive and the Gear, though for the most part, this technology is used for playing video games. Still, its applications in education and engineering have been noted and explored by groups such as the US military, NASA, and even IKEA.
For VR, mainstream adoption may be a long way away, if it happens at all. A more realistic progression for the technology is seeing it used by companies to train their employees on tasks that would be too dangerous or cost-prohibitive to do live—an approach that has already begun. Now, even more mundane tasks are receiving the VR treatment, including package delivery. UPS is working on a VR training system to supplement banal training videos, with drivers-in-training navigating problematic city streets to complete their deliveries. However, this is an example of 360 video which, though more realistic than the outdated graphics often used in VR, limits interactivity. The challenge for virtual reality in the future will be creating an immersive experience that also offers enough interactivity to be beneficial to those using it.
I’m a bit more hopeful about the future of AR, and that’s because of the prevalence of phones. Whereas VR requires often expensive and specialized equipment, AR often only requires the use of a smartphone to be beneficial. Augmented reality shares a lot of applications with VR while being less obtrusive; the devil is in the details, as they say, and AR allows for more immersion due to an individual’s environment filling in things that VR may not account for.
AR is a great way to improve the functionality of existing apps. Take, for example, the diverse and widely-used array of GPS apps on the market. While the services that they provide are useful, they are less useful to anyone not in a car, or anyone looking for anything that does not have an address.
Apple is looking to address these issues with ARKit, offered in conjunction with the mainstay Maps app to provide turn-by-turn directions to individuals in public places. With detailed maps of locations such as airports, this functionality could help people navigate through unfamiliar areas and find services such as help desks that they may need to find. Though many of ARKit’s capabilities are known only through inquisitive people combing through code, it seems wholly possible that this feature could ship with the upcoming iPhone 8.
So, for live assistance, training, and entertainment, we’ll likely be seeing AR used and refined in the future. I’m not expecting VR to languish by any stretch of the imagination, particularly given its link to AR, but I suspect that we’ll be seeing more mainstream AR usage in the near future. What’s next for the technology? Perhaps we will one day see Google Glass make it as a viable platform, or even take VR further with haptic suits.
In any case, I suspect that the future looks bright, at least when viewed through an iPhone with the proper application.