In the next five years, we are going to see one of the biggest changes to computing since the smartphone. Every few years, something comes along and changes the way we use and perceive technology. First it was the PC, then the web, then apps, and soon it will be augmented, mixed and virtual reality. It will become so immersive and popular that we will wonder how we ever lived without it.
This ‘fourth wave’ of the technological advance is broken into three sections: virtual reality (VR) places users inside the virtual world, immersing them. Augmented reality (AR) overlays the user’s real world with virtual objects. Although closely related to AR, mixed reality (MR) anchors ‘solid’ virtual objects in the user’s real world, so they appear real to the user.
With the mainstream release of the latest VR headsets in early 2016, the industry flourished with exciting prospects and the mystery of what it was really like. To date, it’s not lived up to the hype due to the expensive price tag (the cheapest costs £350 and requires a PlayStation to use) and a lack of quality content. However, it’s still believed that VR is ahead of its time, and so it’s important that we remember all the possibilities that it offers outside of gaming.
This is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face to face – just by putting on goggles in your home.
Known as a sibling technology of VR, what AR can offer has been underestimated – until recently. Many tech experts, such as Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, have been siding with AR, commenting on how it will be much larger and more relevant. With multiple uses, AR offers immersive experiences for advertising, marketing and sales, right from the user’s smartphone, making the tech accessible immediately to nearly everyone. It is expected to be a $90bn industry by 2020, while VR is predicted to be worth $30bn.
Made popular by the recent release of Pokémon Go, AR took the world by storm, with over 100 million downloads in its first month and reported earnings of $10m per day at its peak. It just shows how, when combined with a nostalgia trip or relevant news, AR-based experiences can cause quite a ruckus.
Apple has recently teamed up with Carl Zeiss to develop AR hardware and has been awarded a patent for smart glasses equipped with digital displays. The glasses are said to be designed to pair wirelessly with iPhones to show images and contextually relevant information in the wearer’s field of vision.
AR is going to take a while, because there are some really hard technology challenges there, but it will happen, it will happen in a big way, and we will wonder when it does, how we ever lived without it. Like we wonder how we lived without our phone today.
A term conjured up by the engineers at Microsoft, MR is a midway point between total immersion and overlaying the real world with digital information using eyewear devices such as the HoloLens or the Meta. It places the user in an environment where physical and digital objects coexist and interact in real time. In order to create a seamless experience, the devices will require technology capable of high bandwidth and low latency, helping the headset explore a digital 360° space while reacting to the environment around it.
The MR startup Magic Leap has raised $1.4 billion in funding, despite only having demonstrated its technology to a few individuals (never publicly), showing there is a huge demand and belief in the technology.
But which is going to have the biggest impact?
While VR has taken the spotlight in the past year, with tech giants such as Sony, HTC and Facebook getting behind it and producing some of the most game-changing tech, like the Vive and Oculus headsets, it’s my belief that MR and AR will have a far larger impact on the world in the upcoming years.
With the ability to allow people to create, edit and share ideas in a virtual space for all users to understand and perceive them exactly as the creator envisions them, it will lead to a new era of possibility in terms of communication and development. Not only this, but as an education resource, this technology will help people quite literally see things that they haven’t been able to before, allowing them to grasp different concepts and better understand difficult subjects.
It’s hard to realise just how big the scope for reality-based technology can be, as it’s often seen as slightly gimmicky, due to it being in such an early stage of its life cycle. However, it’s important to remember that it will allow users to extend the human experience in new ways, rather than gamifying our reality or cluttering it with information.
Whilst all this tech is cool, when it comes down to it, for everyday use, people just don’t like wearing stuff on their face, as evidenced by the failed Google Glass. So I can only expect that in the future, maybe 20–30 years’ time, the real revolutionary device will be mixed reality contact lenses… that, or neuro-implants that project onto the retina. Crazy, but who knows?