Virtual Reality, Serious Reality?

The first time I heard about virtual and augmented reality at work, I had to force myself hard not to laugh. But here I am, dreaming of it, working on it and writing about it. I now believe this is the future. Sure, there’s a lot of hype about AR and VR today, but that was the case with Internet in 2000, right before the dotcom bubble burst. And today Google and Amazon are among the world’s biggest corporations. We shouldn’t let the hype blind us to the potential of the technology. But how can we tell the real potential of AR/VR from the hype?

A good approach to try and understand what really lies beneath the hype is to compare the current state of technology, which is still admittedly clunky but already spectacular, with the vision that the main players are deploying. Among the main players are most of the so-called GAFAM. Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Satya Nadella among others are burning billions of dollars and they will burn even more before they get the technology right. But given where the technology already is, there’s a reasonable probability that they can make it. We shouldn’t bet against them too quickly.

The State of the Art

Augmented and virtual reality are usually described as different and even antagonistic technologies, but it is more relevant to consider them together. I thought I was very smart when I started thinking about a concept I would call the virtuality continuum until I discovered it had already been invented in 1994. Well, at least I’m not crazy.

Virtuality Continuum

In practice, the concept of the continuum will encompass several categories of devices.

The first is simple Augmented reality as can be seen for instance on an iPhone or Android phone — where images are superposed to your camera view on your smartphone. The advantage is that this technology is already available to millions of users on their smartphone with no additional equipment required. You can move around the represented object in 3D, but it does not offer a real 3D, stereoscopic view since it is displayed on a single flat screen.

 

Hololens
Microsoft Hololens

The second category is AR on Augmented Reality headsets. One of the most advanced technologies available here is the Microsoft Hololens, but many companies are trying to develop it such as Finland’s Varjo. This technology offers full stereoscopic 3D, presenting two slightly different images to both eyes, superposed on reality. They are also usually autonomous, not requiring a connection to a PC. These devices are among the most expensive (the experimental version of Hololens is available for 3,000$) and can still be a bit heavy to wear.

HTC Vive

The third and fourth are Virtual reality devices, either fully autonomous (Google Carboard, Google Daydream, Samsung Gear) or connected to a PC (Oculus and Vive). The autonomous ones are cheaper and usually based on smartphones but with a relatively low definition and limited controls. The PC-connected ones are more powerful, with a higher definition and speed, but the cable make these devices a bit more difficult to use and require an expensive PC.

This is just a quick indicative list. We can expect more devices to appear in the future, and the borders will keep moving. Some devices might project images directly to the eyes, and maybe at some point we might have to include holograms. Given all the uncertainty, the big question now is where this could lead to.

The Vision

We could quote Mark Zuckerberg or Tim Cook, but instead let’s listen to the CEO of a company with one of the most ambitious visions, the Tesla of mixed reality , backed by Google and Alibaba— Magic Leap’s Rony Abovitz.

The Untold Story of Magic Leap

3:24 “But Rony is already thinking about how it might replace all of our others screens too.

  • I can conjure a tableau. I can conjure many televisions. I can conjure home theater…”

If they can realise this vision, if they can go that far, then it will reshape everything.Televisions, desktops and laptops, screens, keyboards and mice, joysticks and consoles, anything that is currently used as an interface between us and the digital world will be replaced with mixed reality devices. We will only need one single interface, both for input and output. This interface will probably consist of a pair of Augmented Reality glasses, and our hands and fingers as controllers. An embedded camera will capture and transmit our facial expressions for improved communication.

Magic Leap - the whale
Fantastic… but can they do it?

 

But we’re far from there yet. Magic Leap’s technology is not ready and the company is so secretive that we must remain cautious about their promises. Augmented and Virtual Reality are divided between themselves, and between several incompatible devices and platforms: Oculus, HTC Vive, Microsoft Hololens, Google Daydream…

Right now, a standard setup for a satisfying VR experience with either Vive or Oculus will come at around 2000 USD or EUR, without counting the cost of software. The user must have some space available either at home or at work to use it. In spite of a great design, these headsets are a bit heavy and suffocating to wear so after one hour of use even a compulsive gamer needs a break. The Hololens is even more expensive and offers a narrow field of vision. At best, this is going to be a long road.

A Long Road

“Once you create and dominate a small market, then you should gradually expand into related and slightly broader markets.” Peter Thiel — Zero To One

The most likely scenario, in my opinion, is one where the world of Mixed Reality is built progressively, step by step. The initial applications of Virtual and Augmented Reality have existed for a while and consist of niches — simulation and training, gaming, architecture, complex data visualisation… we will see these applications in a short while.

Each of these applications should present a case compelling enough that users are willing to spend the money, the time and the effort required to acquire and learn how to use it.

Each new niche, each new application will increase the market and stimulate the emergence of new ideas that will in turn feed the development of more applications. “Killer Apps” might appear but we shouldn’t hold our breath for one to appear suddenly and generate an explosion of AR/VR. It probably won’t happen like that. Computing didn’t emerge suddenly out of one killer app, it evolved over decades out of numerous “killer apps”, from Enigma code-breaking to Big Data and AI.

Follow the White Rabbit

I’m not really a white rabbit but you get the idea. A whole new world of ‘Mixed Reality’ is awaiting us and we’re going to follow the trail and see where it goes.

Beyond video gaming, a topic which I certainly enjoy a lot but that is already well covered, we’ll focus more specifically on the serious aspects of AR/VR: business applications and non-gaming use for individuals. While ideas are exploding all around us, I felt the need for a global vision of AR and VR. I hope to start building and to share this vision.

We will follow what happens in the vast, dynamic, fast-moving fields of augmented and virtual reality. And we’ll also watch this field under different perspectives. Here are some of the questions we are going to address over the following weeks:

What are, will be, could be the areas of application for serious AR/VR?

Who are the main players in AR/VR?

How should we choose between all the different platforms?

What kind of interfaces will we see?

How can we build prototypes?

We’ll face more questions than answers. The future is yet to be written — and it might be with a virtual pen.