Opinion: We are thinking about AR/VR wrong

Opinion: We’re thinking wrong about AR/VR

Everyone likes to talk about Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) as a frontier technology that is going to ‘disrupt’ or even ‘revolutionary’ the technology landscape. Marketing teams evoke AR/VR in quasi-mystical ways – ‘the future’, with a lot of hand-waving. And they are almost always linked together as AR/VR as if they were one thing. In fact, this has become a story. When we see a presentation putting the two together as a future use case, we tend to automatically ignore the rest of the pitch.

Editor’s Note:
guest author Jonathan Goldberg is the founder of D2D Advisory, a multifunctional consultancy. Jonathan has developed growth strategies and alliances for companies in the mobile, network, gaming and software industries.

In reality, AR and VR are very different. And their future is not tied together. This is important, because in order to become commercially interesting, they have to answer a number of important questions. And those questions are similar, but the answers will be very different.

Why do we say they are so different? Under the hood, the electronics are very similar. VR is a pair of glasses that requires highly sophisticated, highly miniaturized, high-density displays. AR will likely be glasses that require highly sophisticated, highly miniaturized, high-density displays. But that’s technical thinking. And no offense to the engineers here, something many believe will disrupt technology should be analyzed from the perspective of user-led thinking. And here AR and VR are totally unrelated.

VR is fully immersive, VR glasses block all outside light sources. This means that users cannot move, at the risk of bumping into walls or coffee tables. VR is for consuming content – videos, games, training materials. It is true that users can get omnidirectional treadmills, but they still stay in one room. VR doesn’t have to be portable, which greatly simplifies things like power requirements and network connections. For example, VR doesn’t need 5G, home Wi-Fi or even wired Ethernet works much better.

In contrast, AR is meant to be portable. The whole point is to overlay AR data over the real world. This makes the electronics a lot more challenging. Power becomes quite a challenge, imagine wearing a battery on your belt, with a wired connection to the AR glasses. And this is where 5G makes sense, especially given the requirement for very low data latency (necessary to reduce image blur and nausea-inducing vertigo).

The electronics are therefore comparable at a high level, but there are already major differences at this technical level.

There are important differences in content. VR data can and probably will be provided by a single source: the video or game maker. AR, on the other hand, requires integration of huge layers of data. The proverbial example of using AR glasses to find a nearby restaurant requires integration of local food guides, maps, and the user’s current position. Granted, this exists online these days, but moving to something as personal as AR will likely force a reorganization of those existing relationships. Not to mention an important new category of privacy issues: AR will be able to tell the data lords a lot more about what we do and who we do it with.

Most importantly, the impact these devices will have on consumer behavior will be completely different. VR may change the way we consume content and new ways of capturing that content are needed, but it won’t significantly change the way we interact as humans. In contrast, AR has the potential to recreate human interactions as much as smartphones have, that is, to a very large extent. Well done, AR means instant connection to all kinds of data – an undetected friend on the other side of the park, a restaurant you didn’t know was so close, an event just a block away. We can’t really predict this one, just as no one could have predicted Uber before the iPhone’s launch.

When it comes to basic concepts of user interface and user experience, AR and VR are completely different. To sum this up, we think it’s important to look at all the devices and machines we use regularly and compare them in two ways: how portable is the device and how personal it is to us.

Trains and taxis are not personal at all, shared by many, but they are mobile. Smartphones are extremely personal, you only share your passcode with people who are very close to you. Laptops are somewhere in the middle, somewhat portable and fairly personal to the owner, but easier to share. VR goggles sit at the bottom, somewhat personal and not so mobile. In contrast, AR glasses are likely to be incredibly personal, but not as mobile as our phones.

Think about the diversity of user interface models for these devices, and we’re starting to get to the heart of how different AR and VR are going to be.

When it comes down to it, the real question at the heart of VR and AR, the only question that really matters is who will control the software, the operating system (OS) that runs it. From this point of view, the answer for VR is probably simple – these will be tied to the game consoles and PCs that provide the content.

On the other hand, the answer for AR is still up in the air. Apple, Google, and Meta would love to be the OS provider, but that’s by no means a foregone conclusion. Solving AR’s many UI and OS issues will be challenging, and areas that are still highly open to competition.

Image credit: Barbara Zandoval

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