Commentary

AR Has More Potential Than VR -- But Where Is It?

Nary a week goes by without new content being uploaded on social media regarding virtual reality. The same cannot be said about augmented reality, which has a an exponentially greater number of potential applications compared to its virtual cousin, but rarely steps in the limelight.

Before going into why, a quick caveat: Pokemon GO wasn’t really AR. Technically, yes, on-device augmented reality IS augmented, but it’s kind of like saying that consumer VR was available in the '80s, and citing the ViewMaster. There are so many UX issues with on-device AR (for example, you’re not actually looking at reality being augmented, you’re looking at a screen projection of reality, which is in turn augmented), that we can’t really expect the format to thrive in that form factor.

So where is “true AR”? The sort of HUD experience we’ve been dreaming of as far back as "The Terminator"? Well, it’s on its way, but still far away, mostly due to hardware limitations. Microsoft’s HoloLens is promising, but the limited field-of-view, limited battery life, and rather high cost (relative to VR) means it likely won’t be the hail Mary AR needs for mass adoption (until version 2, that is).

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Magic Leap is working on some AR tech that has been hyped up from some very well produced mock-ups, but there’s remarkably little in the way of actual product hands-on from journalists, for several years now -- which, if history is any guide, does not bode well for a seamless rollout (though I have heard rumblings of “very impressive” general feedback from people who have tried it, so optimists may still hold out hope).

I’d be surprised if 2017 ends without some major announcement in the AR space, or the entry of a new major player, as the market potential here is huge. Disney recently had some buzz around a VR experiment concerning improved human performance in catching a ball, and it does feel like this technology (predictive trajectories) would be a perfect fit for an AR device over a VR one. Some developers working on the HoloLens have created some extremely neat tech demos, such as this “real-world portal" demo.

The real litmus test for AR is going to be what Google does. Google Glass was a rather spectacular, too-early failure, and while there have been reports of engineers working on a Google Glass v2, there hasn’t been any major leaks or news about it. But with the proliferation of Android, and the device foothold to leverage off, similar to how the company has been leveraging VR via Cardboard and Daydream, there could be the momentum to push AR to consumers.

If 2017 ends without any new major players in AR, I think Microsoft will end the year very, very happy, as it will likely have some significant lead time with developers in cultivating the content driving AR. As most people following tech over the past century know, content quote often proves a determining factor in format/platform wars.

Of course, AR is going to be absolutely huge, whenever it finally arrives.

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