In the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix – one of the popular scenes about exiting the “world of the Matrix” (perhaps the most realistic virtual reality world ever conceived) and entering the “real world” was dependent on a choice between the blue or red pill. Today, toggling between virtual and real has become a bit more transparent. Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have been investing millions of research dollars into this space and what’s coming out of their efforts seems to promise us our own view of The Matrix. The technologies that are ready to hit the market late 2015 and early 2016 promise to profoundly alter the way that we interact with the physical and the digital world.
But before we can “go down the rabbit hole,” we need to set some groundwork. Unlike in the movie, today’s technology is split between two factions:
- Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated environment (typically on a head mounted display), most often in three-dimensional images that allows interaction with the “virtual” elements or objects and removing any distractions of the real world
- Augmented reality (AR) is the composite view of the real world superimposed with computer-generated images/information.
So what makes AR and VR the technology of the future?
First, our interaction with technology has primarily been limited to touch based or audio/visual interactions. The missing piece for the end users is the 360-degree immersive experience that can blur out the difference between reality and simulated environment. This blur has a profound impact on the experience and satisfaction on how we play computer games, how we use learning and communication tools, or how we experience entertainment and retail environments.
Microsoft’s Hololens, Sony’s Project Morpheus and Facebook’s Oculus Rift are all moving towards the future of immersive gaming experiences. It doesn’t just stop there, the immersive environment is becoming more and more context-aware – the systems are learning what we do, how we do and when we do things. This experience is not just limited to visual cues or contextual awareness; even 360-degrees of surround sound will be the reality. Imagine the front row seats to your favorite musical concert with audio quality you have never experienced before – right in your living room.
But this new, augmented virtual reality requires a connection to the digital world. Similar to a smartphone, without an Internet connection there is a big gap in the experience – the social interaction is missing, even personalization and context awareness is missing. These devices, predicted to be over 25 million of them by 2018 would be mostly Internet-enabled. Ready to be updated with the latest features and functionalities over-the-air. Some even predict the revenue generated from VR/AR to be over $150 billion by 2020 and that they will be the go-to gadgets that will ultimately replace our smartphones.
So why hasn’t this technology become mainstream yet?
There are three main factors that are affecting VR/AR becoming more commercialized and readily available:
- Cost – the technology is not cheap currently and has a reliance on high-end powerful computers that it needs to be tethered to. As the research continues and many more users start getting access to cheaper but powerful computers VR/AR gadgets will become mainstream.
- Size – the VR/AR headsets are bulky in and may not be the most comfortable gadgets to carry around. Unlike smartphones they currently don’t fit it pockets/wrist – which could cause social discomfort.
- Content — the lack of targeted content tailored for these devices is also affecting the adoption of VR/AR technology. Original content owners – gaming companies, app developers and even rich media providers are cautious about their foray into VR content. The hardware manufacturers will have to lead the way with new content titles to drive up adoption.
VR has been around for a while now – introduced by Sega Systems as 3D glasses for the first time in the 1980’s. The glasses were not a big success, but it set the groundwork for future technology. In 1995, Nintendo tried to enter this space with 3D glasses and games tailored for it, but again due to lack of industry adoption, new game excitement fizzled its entry.
Fast-forward to today, what has changed from the past is not just the technology, but also the industry support, research dollars and the urge to make it successful this time around. As the innovators make improvements to these areas, more and more people will start getting comfortable with this new technology in social environments. Opening up new avenues for our digital experiences consumption habits and trends. Be it gaming, communication, entertainment and movies, shopping or learning – VR/AR is the technology of the future providing a truly immersive experience never before thought possible.
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