AR has inherited all the promise and hype of VR

Editor Note: This article is written by Nick Statt on Jan 18, 2018 and published on www.theverge.com

For the better part of the last decade, we’ve been told that virtual reality, and to a lesser extent augmented reality, will transform how we communicate, use computers, and play games and enjoy other forms of interactive entertainment. In 2018, it feels like the situation has reversed: AR is the more promising technology on the horizon. As a result, we’re starting to see the industry shift its resources and the built-in momentum of a hyped-up new product category toward heads-up displays. In combination with advancements in computer vision, which seeks to give software the ability to see and understand our surroundings using cameras, sensors, and artificial intelligence, AR now feels poised to take off.

“My own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook in an interview in September 2016. Last year, Cook followed up those comments with even more confidence, coyly commenting on the company’s own rumored AR device. “I regard it [AR] as a big idea, like the smartphone. The smartphone is for everyone. We don’t have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic or country or vertical market. It’s for everyone,” he said at the time. “I think AR is that big. It’s huge. I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives. And be entertaining.”

The renewed interest in AR was abundantly clear at this year’s CES, which capped last week in Las Vegas and featured all manner of smart glasses, production-ready heads-up displays, and bulky and impractical helmets. The full spectrum of AR was present on the floor of the show’s many gadget expos and booth halls, making it easy to see the parallels today with the VR of five years ago. VR these days has largely retreated into the background, with commercial products from three big consumer brands that have set a high bar and brushed away many of the subpar competitors and hopeful but impractical prototypes. In VR’s place, however, AR has taken up the mantle of the exciting new category we once reserved only for science fiction.

Looking back, we can see Oculus’ landmark Kickstarter campaign that went live back in August 2012 as a crucial moment. Every CES after that, especially following Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition in 2014, became both an opportunity to see how far the hardware had advanced and a litmus test for the commercial viability of the overall package. It was also a time of VR mania, with a dizzying number of prototypes and startups trying to cash in on the VR craze with their own hardware or software take.

But with the launch of the consumer Rift and HTC’s Vive headset in early 2016, alongside Sony’s PlayStation VR later that year, the VR hype has faded. The headsets are now polished and comfortable, and prices are being aggressively slashed to get them in the hands of mainstream consumers. The experiences in VR are also getting better all the time. But it remains rather niche and focused primarily on gaming, so adoption will likely only pick up steam with cheaper and more accessible headsets, something Oculus is working toward.

AR may be a fundamentally different technology with a stranger trajectory — the mainstream consumers’ interaction with it has mostly been through Pokémon Go — but we can still look at the arc of modern VR to see where AR might be heading next. For one, it’s important to look at Microsoft’s HoloLens and Google Glass as tipping points for AR’s transition into the tech industry spotlight, alongside the expectations consumers have with this type of technology.

Google Glass was ahead of its time, showing the public what a consumer heads-up display could look like.

 

When Google Glass came out in 2013, it was mostly a heads-up display. It took existing technology we typically think of as military-grade, for use in weapons systems or in pilot interfaces, and shrunk it down into a piece of wearable tech anybody could use. Glass mirrored notifications from your phone, let you perform hands-free recording, and involved minor gesture control interfaces that would let you pinch and zoom the tiny virtual display with your fingers.

But Glass made you look goofy and pretentious, it cost $1,500, and the recording feature freaked out the general public, making the whole package a tough sell. The Glass timeline then goes: delivered bombastically with Google co-founder Sergey Brin skydiving into the company’s annual developer conference in 2012; suffered unceremonious death with production ending in 2015; then resurrected two years later as an enterprise product for factory floors. You would be correct to say Glass was ahead of its time, a misfire as much as it was a teachable moment.

HoloLens, which debuted in early 2015 as an impressive prototype, showed us all of the wild promises of AR in much a safer and smarter format. The product incorporated advanced cameras, depth and motion sensors, fully baked gesture controls, and a miniaturized so-called waveguide system that would build virtual objects out of light and project them back onto eyes. It was everything Glass couldn’t be, both because Google never intended its product to be as advanced and because Microsoft had a better handle on how to present something as early and as promising.

Microsoft’s HoloLens is still just a developer prototype, but it showed everyone the promise of advanced AR. Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Today, the HoloLens is still just a developer kit that costs $3,000, but it got everyone excited because it showed off what the tech could actually do. With HoloLens, you could transform your coffee table into a Minecraft demo, or your bedroom into the surface of Mars. At its most benign, the HoloLens gave you a virtual screen with which to use standard Windows apps, offering a glimpse at what computing might look like decades from now.

Fast-forward to CES 2018, and we’re seeing another watershed moment in AR take shape. All the advancements Google, Microsoft, and the countless companies that have been trying their hand at AR — before and after Glass and the HoloLens — are combining into a new movement that’s bringing AR closer to consumer fashion. Last week in Vegas, we saw the Vuzix Blade, a more sophisticated, enterprise version of Google Glass, that looks almost like a standard pair of glasses. The display is larger and brighter than the Glass display, and this time in full color. It has a camera built in, so software down the line may incorporate more interactive AR apps, like the kind we expect from the HoloLens. It felt like the first AR device that felt more like a consumer product than a proof of concept.

We also saw applications of AR technology at CES designed for specific use cases like road safety, and not just in service to a nebulous futuristic concept of computing. DigiLens’ MonoHUD, which goes into production later this year, uses similar technology to the HoloLens, but shrinks it down into an attachment for any off-the-shelf motorcycle helmet that grants an interactive heads-up display for the road. The company says it’s working with automotive manufacturers to build its technology into even bigger displays, raising the possibility that car windshields of the future might double as intelligent AR displays overlaying information onto the road.

The Vuzix Blade is a pair of smart glasses that floats a virtual screen in your field of view, like a more advanced form of Google Glass. Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Then there were totally implausible prototypes, like Chinese startup Realmax’s AR goggles, that showed us how far the technology has come in such a short time. While making you look completely ridiculous and running incomplete software demos, Realmax’s tech improved upon some key areas of the HoloLens, most importantly the poor field of view with Microsoft’s headset. Realmax’s product may never come to market, at least not in a way mainstream consumers would ever buy.

But its effort stands as an example of the types of hardware and software advancements we’ll see down the line that, in combination with other improvements, will remove many of the hurdles AR suffers from today. Just like how Oculus, HTC, and others were able to address motion sickness, comfort, and other issues in VR over time, the AR industry will tackle its own challenges in iterative fashion.

AR may not be ready for prime-time for another few years, as more iterations of existing hardware and new entrants in the market, like secretive Florida-based startup Magic Leap, begin to arrive. There’s also the ever-present, looming inevitability of an Apple product launch on the horizon, creating a sense of urgency to AR that did not exist with VR.

But therein lies an even more exciting future for this tech, one that sees AR fused with VR in a way that we only just theorized about. “What we know about VR and the headsets, also about having cameras and other sensors on the headsets, is that there’s a lot more development that needs to happen on the hardware side that’s going to optimize the form factor for use well beyond entertainment,” says Brian Blau, a technology analyst at research firm Gartner. “That’s really what we don’t know yet: is it see-through glasses with VR features, AR headsets with VR features? I’d say it’s a bit of all of the above.” We don’t know yet if the future of AR will be intrinsically tied to VR both from a hardware and software standpoint, but Microsoft’s “mixed reality” initiative, which seeks to blend the two into a single product category, is a promising forecast of what’s to come.

In the meantime, and especially in the aftermath of CES, it’s important to recognize that there will be hype, missed expectations, and a lot of prototypes and concepts that will never leave the drawing board. But when all of it recedes, we’ll be left with products that are smaller and better than before, and closer than ever to the idealized form of the technology we’ve all been waiting for. So it’s not a matter of waiting for AR to arrive — it’s been here for years — it’s about picking the right time to jump in, when it finally feels fully baked. And right now, that’s starting to look like it’s right around the corner.

 

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