Things are looking exciting for VR. Upgrades, user-friendly headsets and new-gen high resolution glasses are giving consumers more choice for high-end applications. And in a few years, this high resolution will work its way down to cheaper devices and the cutting-edge technology will become ever more mainstream. Gaming and entertainment applications, among others, will all benefit, as will the increasing number of consumers able to access them.
The trouble is, AR and MR headsets are not having the same levels of progress, yet. It seems that the AR headsets produced so far suffer from the sartorial issues of being slightly clunky and obvious, and the combination of real world and image can be a poor mix. The integration between the real and the augmented needs to be smoother and far more sophisticated before it can live up to its potential.
This puts AR headsets in a bit of a bind. Generally, the purpose of AR is very much task-orientated, making it ideal for businesses. You wear the headset to complete the task then you take it off again – usually for specialised applications which may well be important – but still it feels as if AR is VR’s poor relation.
So, will we ever get the AR headsets that really do look enough like glasses for us to forget what they are? Will AR ever be projected on us as demonstrated so vividly in films like Blade Runner 2049? Possibly, but in the meantime, there is a lack of understanding and subsequent lack of development in the areas where AR can really benefit. AR is amazing and can provide substantial business benefits, but only if it is understood. While there is an expectation gap, both businesses and consumers can find it disappointing.
If you are expecting a seamless integration between augmented reality and reality, then you may be frustrated by the experience.
North Focals glasses are getting close, however. Like Google Glass, the aim is for them to be worn all day by glasses wearers. They do look like glasses and mainly, people can’t tell unless they happen to be standing in just the right place. Unlike Glass, where the display showed something to the right and up, making it very obvious when you were looking at it, the display on North beams a laser onto the lens which reflects into your eye. This precision, however, means that the glasses have to custom-fit individuals to avoid distortion.
But North and Glass are not quite AR – they don’t overlay on the world, yet – they give you a similar interaction to that you’d get on a smartwatch – you just don’t need to use your hands.
AR simply augments or supplements the environment that already exists (reality) with computer-generated information, overlaying the real world with digital elements: perhaps graphics or haptic feedback. The advantage of AR is that it can translate to very specific, beneficial applications.
For example, a learning environment can be made more immersive, enabling active participation for the learners such as flight simulation or engineering and design.
Communication can be overlaid with interactive graphic images. In a business environment, AR can enable better product development through digital design and remote communication, or in retail, a visual dressing room could enable customers to try on clothes remotely. Navigation can benefit from live visual map information whilst useful information such as terrain, weather and map data can be displayed on windscreens, and visits to tourist attractions can be enhanced. In gaming, digital gameplay takes place in the real-world environment.
So far so good, but there are drawbacks. For example, some AR applications collect and use biometric data which may in turn, create issues with data protection laws.
Also, as AR blurs the distinction between the real and the digital, there have been safety concerns that AR reduces caution in users and diminishes their ability to discern real dangers (remember Pokémon Go).
Despite its potential for beneficial applications then, developing AR does have certain implementation requirements. For example, specific devices need to have the adequate processing capabilities to run the applications which could prove prohibitively expensive for smaller businesses. AR also depends on developments in AI technology which are necessary for its ever-expanding potential to be fulfilled. Because AR is a technology in development, there can sometimes be a gap between people’s expectations and what it can actually do.
In time, as with all technologies, AR will refine and improve. Until then, we’d be wise not to inflate what we want it to do but appreciate what it can currently deliver.