Ever since our childhood, the world of cinema has thrilled us with depictions of holographic communication, information superimposed on reality and virtual worlds where we can be what we cannot be in real life. We have heard so much about these technologies, but they have never truly managed to form part of our daily lives.
However, both these technologies have the potential to become the cornerstones of our digital lives, just as smartphones have done over the last decade. There are even some who think that these devices will eclipse mobile phones in the near future. But what is the missing element for these technologies to pervade our everyday lives? Are they mature enough for mass market release? What are their potential uses?
Differences between Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)
Firstly, we need to consider the nature of VR and AR and the main differences between them
The main difference is the element of isolation from the real world. While in the case of VR we are immersed in a fictitious digital world that isolates us from the real world in which we live, in the case of AR we continue in our own world and the AR device (smartphone, intelligent glasses, etc.) helps us to see objects and information which are superimposed on the real world.
There is a third concept which we will also mention: mixed reality. This technology combines the benefits of both VR and AR, showing us both the real world and superimposed images and objects through its cameras. You could say that mixed reality offers a virtual image of the real world.
Best Products launched of the last 10 years in VR / AR
Early Attempt: Nintendo developed Virtual Boy
Until 2010, any VR or AR technology for the wider public was disappointing at the least. Nintendo made an early attempt with its Virtual Boy in 1995 which failed miserably. Its video console/headset with stereoscopic vision was so uncomfortable that it had virtually no market impact. The company abandoned the concept a matter of months after it was released.
Facebook’s investment in Oculus VR
However, everything changed when the first prototype of the Oculus Rift was presented in 2010. These were the first VR glasses to convince everyone who tried them and marked the path for this technology to follow in the future. It was so promising that in 2014 Facebook purchased the company Oculus, and since then it has gone on to become one of the most important and promising business lines for the company’s future. The launch in May 2019 of Oculus Quest, its first all-in-one headset, has provided a major boost for VR and finally made this technology universally accessible.
Google, Cardboard VR glasses and DayDream VR Platform
Facebook is not the only company investing in VR. Also in 2014, Google launched Cardboard for its mobile phones as a means of introducing this technology to a wider public. For only a few euros we could have our own VR glasses at home and use our smartphones to immerse ourselves in this fascinating technology. In 2016, the DayDream VR platform was launched as a natural evolution of the Cardboard concept. However, it had limited success and like so many other projects by Google, it was eventually abandoned by the company.
Videogames market lead the market: Sony and PlayStation VR
In 2014, Sony made its own inroads in this field with the presentation of PlayStation VR, a gaming device which currently dominates the market for VR headsets. HTC has also joined forces with Valve, the creators of the Half-Life video game, to launch its own VR glasses. Even Nintendo, following the failure of its Virtual Boy, has also tried its luck with VR again with its Labo VR Kit. Returning to Google’s Cardboard idea, it has transformed its Nintendo Switch into a simple VR device.
Microsoft launched Windows Mixed Reality while waiting for Apple
As for less entertainment-oriented platforms, Microsoft has also presented its Windows Mixed Reality platform, a combination of VR and AR which is yet to fully convince Windows users. And Apple? Rumours have been circulating for years now regarding the company’s entry into this new business line. The latest news is that Apple will be launching its own VR proposal at some stage during the next three years. The company currently has more than 1,000 engineers working in this area.
And what happened with the Augmented Reality?
AR has perhaps not been as successful as VR, although this technology is expected to become an essential part of our daily lives in the coming years.
Google was the first company to introduce AR to a wider audience. Its Google Glass fascinated the world in 2012 with its ability to display digital information to us in the real world. However, criticisms were raised regarding the lack of privacy of these devices and a design which was not in keeping with user needs: who’s going to wear glasses if they don’t really need them? A product’s success depends not only on the product itself; the moment it reaches the market also has a major influence. In this sense, Google was too far ahead of its time. Although Google Glass devices are still being marketed, the company is planning to relaunch its product and is currently working on the latest version of the device, which will be on sale with a hefty $1,200 price tag through hardware resellers.
Microsoft has gone a step further and launched its mixed reality headset Hololens, which is also oriented towards the business market. Collaborative work and teleworking, virtual desktops, additional information in real environments… it seems that Microsoft has finally found viable applications and uses for this technology. However, the staggering cost of the device (around €3,500) has meant that mass adoption of this technology in our daily working lives is a long way off.
Perhaps the most successful example of these experiments is Nintendo’s Pokémon Go
Other companies have also toyed with the idea of AR. Perhaps the most successful example of these experiments is Nintendo’s Pokémon Go. This device allows us to see Pikachu moving in our world using our smartphone camera. Lenovo has also released its own gaming-oriented AR device which lets you battle against Star Wars villains or transform into one of the Marvel superheroes. Both these proposals are aimed more at the entertainment market as opposed to the business world.
When will we have these devices in our homes?
Apart from the technological challenge, what does it take for these technologies to form part of our daily lives? The answer is simple: they need to meet a need that people have or offer something different to other devices that already cover that need.
In this sense, VR seems to be at a higher level of maturity then AR. On the one hand, it has managed to establish its primary and fundamental application in the world of entertainment. Its use in video games has given new meaning to this technology, taking us to a new dimension through its immersive experience. Players can empathise more with the character and feel much more like they are part of the adventure.
Both Facebook with its Oculus Quest and Sony with its PlayStation VR have already won the hearts of the highly coveted ‘early adopters’, technology junkies whose desire to have the latest version of everything drives them to purchase any product released before anyone else does. These early adopters are highly useful as guinea pigs to gauge people’s interest in new technology, and also to improve the product in future versions. Their opinions and word of mouth are fundamental to achieve the step up to the mass market, a moment which seems to be drawing ever nearer.
All the big names in Silicon Valley have launches of VR and AR devices marked in their roadmaps. Nobody wants to miss the party and everyone is starting to make their preparations, to a greater or lesser degree. Will these new technologies substitute mobile phones? Many say they will, but firstly they will have to convince us of their utility and advantages compared to the screens that we all carry around in our pockets these days. The change will not be immediate; smartphones and headsets may even complement each other and coexist for a number of years. However, little by little these new technologies will undoubtedly become more commonplace and invade our lives, just as the smartphone did a decade ago now.