While Augmented Reality (AR) has been buzzing in the tech industry for a few years, Virtual Reality (VR) has made a huge splash and comeback with the recent announcement of Facebook acquiring Oculus VR for about $2B.
I've heard some conversation lately about whether VR just knocked AR out of the picture, or if one is better than the other. The recent Facebook acquisition at such an enormous buying price is likely going to spawn a bit of a gold rush as people suddenly try to get on the bandwagon, and this might make it harder for AR startups to find funding (already a hard thing to do).
I think first, we need to understand the differences between AR and VR as well as how these technologies are going to be used. Both have the potential to be massive agents of change, but not in the way that most people think.
Augmented Reality (AR) is best described as a digital layer of information superimposed on what you are looking at. Most people are familiar with the term "heads up display" or HUD (as you would see in an airplane cockpit) or the digital yellow first-down line in football. That line isn't actually there, but it is added to the video feed as a layer of information.
Many implementations of mixed reality are referred to as Augmented Reality. Unless you are really picky like me, or an academic, its probably fine to refer to both as Augmented Reality or AR.
I wanted to make the distinction here for a couple of reasons, but if you are new to all this, just think Augmented Reality when I say Mixed Reality and you will be fine.
Mixed Reality (MR) is essentially the same as Augmented Reality (and almost always referred to as AR) except instead of an overlay with information (for example, imagine people's names floating over their heads), the experience would have digital 3D objects placed in the environment around you, which in some cases you could interact with. Examples of this would be 3D Zombies shambling around a college campus, or replacing your head with Darth Vader's helmet while you are on a video chat with your friends.
Mixed Reality, or the full blending of the real world and the virtual, is where I think the greatest potential for amazing things is at, and certainly (in my opinion) the coolest stuff to work on.
Virtual Reality (VR) is where you are fully immersed in a virtual environment or virtual world (VW), generally through a wearable display, like those that Oculus VR makes, much larger and complicated contraptions (see image to the right, lol), or through something like a bunch of giant screens around you or a dome that you would stand inside.
VR really captured the minds of the public in the late 80s and through the mid-90s with a bunch of very popular and high profile movies. Unfortunately, these movies set the bar of expectations as to what the current day technology could do, and VR was ultimately a huge disappointment. It eventually faded away, with barely a handful of VR evangelists still proclaiming the world-changing implications of VR.
Still though, with the right interface and experience, VR is going to be pretty mind-blowing.
Double Rainbows! What does it all mean?
Augmented Reality (both types) and Virtual Reality are pretty damn awesome and compelling when you think about it.
AR is ultimately going to have an effect on every day life much in the way the Internet and the Web has so far. You can disagree with this all you want, but it is coming. It might to envision right now while things are still so early, but at some point critical mass is going to occur, and some tremendously amazing application in an area like education or entertainment (early on in any case) will blow the industry up and we will see another information age evolution and rapid revolution occur before our eyes. Some people today are worried about competitors in this industry...honestly, I think they are missing the point. AR is going to spawn entirely new professions and industries, and ultimately change the way we think about and interact with the environment around us and other people. Pick an industry and I'll tell you how it will be reinvented with AR.
VR on the other hand, is, at first glance, much more compelling and engaging. While AR is all about who and what is around you, VR has the potential to take you to an entirely new place (real or imaginary) where you can be anyone and experience anything. Even the rules of physics can go right out the door. Imagine experiencing the world from the perspective of a fly, or exploring something while you are no bigger than half a dozen atoms. On the other end of the scale, flying through space and seeing galaxies in the palm of your hand. What about traveling through time and seeing an event unfold, first-hand, from the point of view of someone that was actually there? Anything and everything is possible with VR, and I haven't even started talking about things like new ways to learn or interact with pure data and information. Of course, I'll be first in line to see the digital frontier like TRON did.
Remember, AR is about the world around you, blended with digital objects, whereas VR is about an entirely different world, and all immersive. Both of these have tremendous potential and great promise, provided that we don't give up on getting there, and we can get away from horribly designed and implemented gimmicks, just for the sake of a quick buck, or trying to get on the bandwagon.
Having said that, the really smart people out there understand that there are very similar underlying technologies in both AR and VR. It may make sense to differentiate the two for marketing of some product or another, or in some academic discussion, but the real power of both is going to happen when the technologies mature to some level, and we start seeing some convergence and coadunation of both, along with other elements like the internet of things and sensors, new control devices, and a reinvention of information display (are windows and pages really the right metaphor for AR and VR? I don't think so).
Not so fast Buckaroo Banzai!
The best way I can describe the state of the industry compared to what people expect from all the marketing is to use a time machine as the example.
What everyone expects because of all the marketing hype: Dr. Who's T.A.R.D.I.S
What is actually available on the market: A cardboard box with some blinking lights, a fan blowing some air, and a questionable looking guy outside shaking the box and making sounds like "EERrwWwoooooSHHHh" "EERrwWwoooooSHHHhEERrw" as loud as he can.
Joking aside, we have seen glimpses of what AR and VR could be like in the future mostly thanks to Hollywood. This sort of stuff is coming, it may just take a while.
Having said that, the question of whether or not AR and/or VR are just technological fads still remains for many people. It is fun for a couple of minutes and then...meh? What's the point?
Virtual Reality still has a few things to work out with the head mounted displays, the big thing being the irritating sense of dizziness and motion sickness that a lot of people experience after only a few brief minutes wearing the gear. I expect that will be conquered very soon. The other issue is that of user interface...how do we interact with these amazing virtual worlds? Right now, we have to stumble blindly using a keyboard we can't see, or some other type of hardware like a joystick, motion controller, or maybe a glove studded with sensors. This too will probably be sorted out in the near future, but for all of the glorious experiences we see with VR on TV and in the movies, we will have to wait until we can jack into our brains directly, or something else that can record impulses from our spinal cord and interpret those to control a 3D avatar in the virtual world. This by the way, is quite different from the traditional approach of trying to "read" the mind by using generic EEG sensors to identify certain brainwave patterns. This is commonly referred to as reading the mind by a lot of companies and a few recent tech toys, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Augmented Reality has its own issues. It is one thing using printed "markers" (basically black and white patterns) or simple image recognition to tell the software where to display the content associated with those markers, but it is an entirely different beast to do full-on AR like in the videos under Mixed Reality at the beginning of this post. To do that, you have to understand the environment around you (I call this spatial intelligence) and that is a bit tricky. Even trickier trying to do that for an experience that multiple people are engaging in at the same time. More on this later in a different blog post. I have a lot to say about this : )
Needs more cowbell
In any case, at the end of the day, both AR and VR need "more cowbell". Even if the technology is getting where it needs to go (albeit slowly, mostly due to lack of risk capital available for innovation and R&D, but also lack of enough visionaries really trying to push things forward with ambition), there still remains the quality of the experience itself, and what the application is.
For now, VR, in all of its glory and recent industry excitement, still lacks killer experiences. Most of what I've seen out there, is essentially just replacing the monitor on your desktop with a wearable display, and then calling it a day. VR is unique in many respects, and I don't think it will take off as much as it should until there are experiences and content designed specifically for VR instead of just being tacked on.
AR is probably in a worse position right now...the industry has been flooded with a bunch of novelty gimmicks meant to attract attention, but without giving any real substance or added value to the experience. There is plenty of hype coming from people releasing awesome concept videos that look good, but have little to do with what their tech or app actually does, and in some cases, there is little thought given to the realities of what is necessary to pull off some of the capabilities shown in these videos. I'll save my comments for what AR needs and how the tech needs to evolve to get where it needs to be for the magic to happen for another post soon.
A little critical...
I might be a little bit critical with a dose of cynicism in my posts here and elsewhere, but this is more about the state of the industry and not so much about the technology itself. Most of my frustration comes from over-marketing, get-rich-quick people, and venture capital pouring into dumb ideas and companies instead of seeking out real innovators that have the potential to make a difference. So, whatever you think, don't let me discourage you about the tech or the industry. Some amazing things are going to happen, and relatively soon.
A few companies I like to keep an eye on:
These guys are all doing it. Really smart people, solid technology, and thoughtful roadmaps. One step at a time, but that is the way to go.
You won't get a bunch of razzle dazzle from these three companies or concept videos that strain the sense of credulity. There are too many of those already in the industry (and they shall remain unnamed here). It is safe to say (in my opinion) that at least half the industry is either full of it, a waste of time, or just trying to ride the hype and repacking something else and making it seem great. You know who you are!
In the Movies
In case you still don't know what AR or VR is, here are a couple of movies you can watch easily enough to get a better idea. Have fun.
AR in Movies: Terminator, Minority Report, Iron Man, Avatar, Robocop
VR in Movies: The Matrix, Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, and many more.
You should also check out Dennou Coil (anime), and read stuff like Neuromancer (one of my all time favorites), Cryptonomicon , Diamond Age, Rainbow's End, and Dream Park. There is a ton of fantastic material out there that will blow your mind. Not hard to find. Speaking of which, feel free to list your favorite movies or books that have anything to do with AR or VR in the comments. Other readers will appreciate it.
See you in the future.