Virtual and augmented reality technologies can be confusing. Everyone seems to agree they will be a part of our future, but how exactly? Why are they so important? What are the different use cases? Is there value beyond the gimmick?
In this article, I cover 12 high level concepts about what I believe is the future of immersive technologies, and how it will impact our lives over the next decade.
1. Immersive technologies are the next change of interface
History shows that every 10 to 15 years, a new computing platform emerges: computer in the 70s, Internet in the 90s, mobile in the 2000s. Immersive technologies are more than a new computing platform: they are a change of interface. There has only been two changes of interface in the entire human history: the first one was the printing press (from verbal communication to written) and the second one was the screen (from physical to digital). Both these shifts had a huge impact on humanity. I believe that immersive technologies are the next change of interface, progressively taking our attention away from the screen, and that it will have a similar breadth of impact.
2. Smartphone AR is not true AR
By definition, immersive technologies do not rely on a screen to display information. Therefore, smartphone AR does not belong to the category. Holding your phone in front of you to consume content is awkward, not natural, and will not provide real customer value beyond very specific use cases, or gimmicks. That said, smartphone AR is a critical stepping stone towards headset AR, fostering a community of developers building AR content before headsets hit the market.
3. VR will hit the masses before AR
Despite less hype lately, virtual reality will have its ‘iPhone moment’ before augmented reality. VR already has consumer hardware in the market and a strong developer community, whereas AR headsets are still development devices, a few years away from consumer adoption. These devices are still relying on hardware progress, miniaturisation and machine learning advances to deliver on their promise, whereas VR technology is in more of an optimization phase.
4. VR is currently limited by friction
When asked what VR needs to go mass market, everyone have their own opinion: it needs 6 degree of freedom, 90Hz refresh rate, 110 degree fields of view, or more content. These are hyper technical factors that are important to improve the experience, but are not the source of the problem. The real reason is a lot less technical: what is preventing virtual reality to go mass market today is friction. Hardware is expensive, bulky, complicated to set up, even the software are buggy. No magic bullet will propel VR mainstream, instead it is a slow evolution of the technology, cutting friction at every level from price, distribution, ease of use, to content.
5. VR will become our new social hub
Looking at previous generation of computing platforms, communication tools have always been the stronger drivers of adoption. It won’t be any different in virtual reality. Like Mark Zuckerberg, I believe that VR will become a new social and entertainment hub, enabling people to meet like minded people, build relationship and share their passions in hyper-targeted communities they will contribute building, using tools like VRChat, High Fidelity or Somnium Space. Most things we do on a screen at home, such as watching TV, shopping, interacting with friends, we will be able to do more naturally in virtual reality.
6. AR will become our personal assistant
The impact of AR will be far greater than VR. I believe that over the next decade, AR will establish itself as the greatest productivity tool ever invented, removing the attention switch – looking back and forth between the device and the world. AR will become a visual equivalent to voice assistants like Alexa or Google Home, whether we are at home, travel, shop, or work. Constantly processing contextual information, AR will become our personal assistant, giving us the ability to multitask, and remove friction from our lives.
7. VR needs a ‘Web’ to solve the interoperability problem
Before the Web was invented, the Internet was a collection of databases which were hard to access and navigate. The Web established the standards necessary to democratize the internet, such as hyperlinks. Similarly, I believe that VR needs a Web. Right now, its ecosystem is very fragmented. We need to build the equivalent of hyperlinks in VR, for users to seamlessly navigate between apps, and incentivize cross-promotion. This is the interoperability problem – ensuring compatibility between VR worlds built by different companies. To avoid putting too much power in too few hands, the best structure for this is a decentralised exchange – just like the Internet was initially – enabling users to maintain their identity and digital wealth securely across the VR ecosystem.
8. AR needs a Cloud to become a persistent layer
Right now, AR experiences cannot be shared. Say I am placing a virtual car in my garage to see if it fits – the car is only visible on my device, until I shut down the app. In the near future, AR content will be persistent in time, meaning that the digital car will stay in the garage until I move it, even if I go away in the meantime. Also, AR content will become a shared experience. Everyone with a headset will see the digital car in my garage, from a different angle, based on their position. To make this possible, the experience needs to be streamed from a special cloud – the AR Cloud. The AR cloud is a digital layer on top of the real world, that will eventually mesh the entire surface of the globe, to be able to place persistent objects at scale. Building this giant database of virtual items requires a completely new way to approach the cloud, and several companies are working on it.
9. AR won’t be as intrusive as you think
A common misconception is that because we’ll be wearing AR glasses, we’ll be constantly bombarded with content, from brands or advertisers trying to capture our attention. While advertising will be key to the growth of the industry, I believe that overall, we will see a lot less ads in AR. Through the camera, AR technology gives advertisers the ability to understand the context of the situation, to find the perfect moment to reach consumers. Ads will therefore be more impactful and convert better, leading to an overall reduction of the number of ads being served.
10. VR will respect your privacy
People are getting increasingly annoyed with the way their personal data is mistreated by the web giants. Luckily, behavioral targeting is fundamentally incompatible with a lot of VR shared experiences, requiring uniformity (everyone needs to see the same thing). Instead, advertisers will rely on understanding the nature of the scene, to target against contextual data. Is this a virtual world about sport? Travel? Theatre? Based on that information alone, advertisers can establish a profile of the audience likely to consume the content, and serve relevant ads, without intruding on user’s privacy.
11. VR and AR will converge
VR and AR are essentially different level of immersion of the same media: complete immersion for VR, partial for AR. AR technology is of course more complex, because it needs machine learning to understand the terrain, in addition from the VR tracking technology. I believe that in less than a decade, headsets will support both technologies – and the first one could be built by Apple. VR and AR will converge into a medium where users will be able to select their level of immersion, and it will probably be called mixed reality.
12. The industry is about to blow up
Immersive technologies are an inevitable change, and the industry is growing well, despite what some reports. I believe the industry is now in second half of the slope of enlightenment of the hype cycle. We have seen tremendous progress in the past 2 years, following Moore’s law: screen resolution doubled and headsets price halved. This year, the Oculus Go will be released at a $200 price point, and the Magic Leap One will give customers a first glimpse of the AR future. On the software side, content is growing 400% year on year, 400M peoplehave access to smartphone AR, and Apple reports over 13M download of ARKit apps. The immersive future is bright!