In January of 2017, Tech Crunch, a popular technology news website predicted a $94 billion market for augmented reality by the year 2021 and $25 billion for virtual reality. That’s a lot of billions for a technology still very much in its infant stages. While a healthy skepticism is certainly in order, pairing those predictions with Apple CEO Tim Cook’s recent comments regarding the technology is enough to give pause.
“I regard it as a big idea like the smartphone,” said Cook during an interview with The Independent, a news outlet in Great Britain. “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. 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. I view AR like I view the silicon here in my iPhone, it’s not a product per se, it’s a core technology.”
So what is this “core technology” Apple’s comparing to iPhones and analysts are putting billions next to? Well for starters, it’s actually two technologies, similar but different. Let’s start with virtual reality, better known as VR.
To experience VR, one wears video goggles fully immersing them in a virtual environment. The real world goes away and the viewer is exclusively engaged with the digital. In the past year VR has entered the market in a meaningful way with consumer hardware like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR to name a few. VR experiences can also be generated from smart phones through Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. Even simple virtual experiences can be accessed through Facebook and Youtube 360 videos, allowing users to move their phone in any direction to “look around.”
If VR is the first wave of this “core technology,” augmented reality (often referred to as AR), is definitely the second wave and will likely become the 900-pound gorilla. Rather than replacing your physical environment all together, AR “augments” what you’re seeing with digital elements.
Patrick Glueck, a Technologist for Trifecta Communications, attended Augmented World Expo in San Jose, California last summer and tested a number of prototype AR headsets. “Products like Microsoft’s Hololens definitely show where things are going,” said Patrick. “But unlike VR, there still seem to be a few years between where the technology is now and a truly viable AR headset for consumers.”
In the meantime, AR is getting legs through mobile devices. Apps utilizing the camera on a phone or tablet can generate AR experiences merging digital elements into the real world in convincing ways. Advertisers, entertainment venues and educators are finding a range of applications for mobile device generated AR. Games like Pokemon Go have also helped move AR from a mere curiosity into the mainstream.
In the coming years, it is our belief both augmented and virtual reality (cumulatively known as “mixed reality”) will become essential elements to most marketing campaigns, the way Twitter and Facebook are presently. Exactly how these experiences will be viewed and to what extent the technology continues to develop is still a question. But make no mistake, it’s coming…and in many ways is already here.
By Brent Wheelbarger