10 Questions about Virtual and Augmented Reality

By Paul Mealy

If you’re interested in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), you’ve likely asked yourself one or more of the questions you’ll find here. In many cases, there aren’t definitive answers available, but I tell you what I think and what many of the leading experts in the fields of VR and AR have said.

How will virtual and augmented reality affect me?

Wondering how VR and AR technologies are going to affect your life? You’re not alone. Many are wondering the same thing, and the future is uncertain, so any answer to this question is going to involve some guesswork.

The good news: Neither VR nor AR will likely be thrust upon you unwillingly in the near future. Do not expect to come to work tomorrow and find that your PC has been completely replaced by a pair of AR glasses.

VR will likely start to seep into your life around the edges. A VR arcade may spring up at your local mall, or a tech-minded friend may have a headset for you to experience. As the lower-cost headsets start to arrive, you may even decide to purchase one yourself. A lot depends on the industry you work in, but VR seems unlikely to force its way into your life as much as gradually work its way in through location-based experiences, entertainment, and gaming.

AR has the potential to be more disruptive, and its strengths make it a contender to be implemented in the workplace before VR. Similar to the early days of the personal computer, that may be many user’s first exposure to the technology. However, full-scale industry usage is likely some time off. Barring a large leap forward for AR (and depending on your industry), you’re likely still at least five years from passing colleagues sporting AR glasses in lieu of a PC.

The VR and AR industries are anything but static, and growth can come in leaps and bounds. It would be foolish to make a prediction about either industry without constantly revisiting that prediction to realign with reality. Oculus turned the VR world on its head in 2013 with the DK1. HTC did it again with the Vive in 2016. Google and Apple flipped the AR world upside down with ARCore and ARKit in 2017. Magic Leap hopes to do the same with the Creator Edition in 2018. That’s a lot of turns and flips. The only constant is change, so keeping abreast of changes is vitally important if you don’t want to be left behind.

Which technology will win?

A popular question now that both VR and AR have risen in public awareness is which technology will win the battle of the fourth wave of technologies — VR or AR? From a business point of view, you may want to know which technology to throw your development resources behind. From a consumer point of view, you may want to know which devices you should consider purchasing.

A realistic answer is that, in the long run, both are likely to win (that is, become an integral part of our technological lives). VR and AR are different technologies. Although they exist in the same sphere, they aren’t in direct competition with one another. There likely won’t be one winner and one loser. They both have different sets of strengths and weaknesses. In the future, a user may wear her AR glasses on the job to complete her workday tasks, and then come home and don her VR headset for some evening entertainment.

Having said that, the ultimate form factor may be a headset that can merge the two technologies. No current device has offered this option, though many VR headsets have multiple front-facing cameras on them that could conceivably be used for AR experiences. Microsoft even went so far as to name its VR headsets Windows Mixed Reality, leading many to speculate that Microsoft sees the technologies merging to a single device in the future. (For its part, Microsoft has claimed that the name is due to its headsets belonging to its Windows Mixed Reality platform, which includes the HoloLens.)

A wireless headset that offers the ability to switch between the full immersion of VR and the mixed worlds of AR could be a solution consumers flock to.

VR and AR are not necessarily competitors! Each has its own set of strengths, and each technology’s strengths actually serve to shore up the other’s weaknesses.

What if I don’t have a headset for VR/AR?

Some websites utilize WebVR (a way to experience VR in a browser), and some applications enable you to use your computer or phone without a headset. YouTube, for example, has a number of videos that let you look around and explore in 360 degrees. However, in those applications, you aren’t really experiencing VR. You’re just viewing a 360-degree world via a two-dimensional screen.

To truly experience VR, a headset is required. A number of basic headsets, such as Google Cardboard, allow you to experience VR at very low cost (often less than $20). Having said that, you should seek out the highest VR experience you can. You don’t need to rush out and buy the most expensive VR headset you can find. But find a location-based VR experience, or even try your local mall or big-box retailer that has VR demo areas. The difference in quality between a simple Google Cardboard viewer and the high-end headsets is massive. If you’ve yet to experience high-quality VR, it is an amazing experience that is not to be missed.

To experience a slimmed down version of AR, often all you need is a recent version of an Apple or Android mobile phone or tablet. iOS and Android have released ARKit and ARCore, versions of AR specifically created for their respective mobile devices. A number of applications exist in the App Store and Google Play Store tailored to those technologies.

How large will the virtual and augmented reality consumer markets get?

It’s difficult to pin down the current market sizes of VR and AR today, let alone know what will happen to those markets in the future. Market size is difficult to determine for many reasons, including lack of availability of precise market analytics, various form factor executions, and market fragmentation. However, we can look at some products and technologies to help with some rough estimates.

For VR, now is the perfect time to take stock of the direction the markets are headed. The first generation of devices has had ample amount of time in consumer hands. A number of second-generation VR devices are becoming available. More details will also have emerged around manufacturers’ plans for the future, and how they’re adjusting to where the markets seem to be headed.

All of this should add up to informative years for VR. Manufacturers appear to be planning for a sharp uptick in VR headset sales, with sales likely concentrated around the midrange headsets. The sales of these second-generation devices should help predict the size of the consumer base for VR. There may or may not be a massive explosion of VR adoption, but most hope that a steady increase over time in the quality of headsets and experiences should bolster the market.

AR will likely not see much of a consumer jump for a few years, outside of executions within mobile devices. Most AR devices are targeted toward enterprise businesses instead of consumers. If your dream was to sell a billion headset-based AR apps in the next few years, you’re likely to be disappointed. But fear not! What headset-based AR will lack in market size, it will make up for in enterprise-level executions. There will likely be a large influx of companies looking to utilize AR within the next few years.

You can typically extrapolate predictions based on existing markets, consumer price point comfort, and ability to scale to mass-consumption level. Generally, those data points give you enough information to make a reasonable guess at market size within the next year or two. However, there will always be the potential for a game-breaking technology to appear. A company could release a mass-produced AR headset tomorrow that immediately blows these predictions out of the water.

When should I enter the virtual reality/augmented reality market as a consumer?

There is no “right” or “wrong” time to enter the VR or AR marketplace. Evaluate each technology on its merits and decide what is right for you.

VR is, at present, a more mature market on the consumer side than AR. There is more competition among headset manufacturers and more content available via various manufacturers’ app stores. There are also a number of choices at various levels of quality and price points.

AR, on the other hand, lags behind in the consumer space. Only one or two headset/glasses manufacturers seem to be in any sort of position to produce hardware at anywhere near mass consumer scale, and the price points of these devices are far beyond what most consumers are willing to pay. However, users can also get a taste of AR via applications for their mobile devices.

In the end, this is a decision you must make on your own, considering how you plan to use the hardware and software. Are you looking for the highest-quality immersive experience for gaming or entertainment? A higher-end VR headset may be a good choice. Are you looking for a bleeding-edge, early adopter glance at how we could be working in the near future? Perhaps one of the AR headsets is your best bet.

For most of the general population, AR headsets at consumer scale is probably a few years out. Experiencing AR via your mobile device will likely suffice for most consumers for the time being.

VR, however, is readily available for public consumption now. If you have an interest in experiencing VR in the comfort of your own home, there is no reason to hold back any longer from purchasing a device. As with most tech hardware, at this point it’s just a matter of evaluating the hardware and upcoming choices and deciding what’s right for you.

When choosing a VR/AR device (or any technology), evaluate not only the current choices, but the upcoming choices as well. For example, a user looking for a VR device may be focused on the current generation of devices. As with many technologies, these devices are likely refreshed and improved upon every few years. Be sure to evaluate your current choices versus all upcoming choices to help avoid any buyer’s remorse.

When should my company enter the market?

There is no right or wrong time to enter the emerging technology market as a consumer, but there can be a right or wrong time to enter it as a company. Enter too early or without a strong direction, and you risk being so far out on the bleeding edge that the market hasn’t built itself to sustain your entry. Enter too late, and you risk the market having passed you by.

Now is definitely a good time to be evaluating both technologies to determine how they fit within your organization’s long-term growth and development. VR is fast maturing as a market. In the next two years, you can expect to see rapid growth in this space at mass consumer and enterprise scale.

AR is lagging behind slightly in availability for mass consumer adoption. Mobile AR will play a large role for the next few years, with AR wearables likely a few years beyond that. However, AR is already catching on within enterprise lines of business. AR in the enterprise will likely see very steady growth, with the potential for extreme spikes in certain enterprises such as medical, industrial, design, and manufacturing fields.

In general, the drawbacks of incorporating technology within your market too early pale in comparison to those of entering a market too late. Although you may jump the gun and find yourself with a smaller market by entering too early, you may find your market cornered by competitors if you enter too late.

You should already be evaluating how these technologies could shake up your particular industry. If you still aren’t sure how these technologies may fit within your industry, running one or two small pilot projects or ideation labs utilizing VR or AR within your company walls could help you decide where VR or AR adoption within your industry could take place in the future.

William Shakespeare wrote, “Better three hours too soon than a minute late.” The penalty your company will pay for entering the market too early is rarely higher than the steep price it could pay for entering the market too late. we all would love the ability to time the market just right, but that’s impossible. Err on the side of being proactive instead of reactive.

Which virtual reality headset is right for me?

Deciding upon a VR headset is a question with a number of variables involved — there is no one right answer that will work for everyone. At a high level, there are three different tiers of VR hardware:

  • High-end “desktop” headsets: If you’re looking for the most immersive VR experience and have external hardware ready to power your headset, one of the high-end headsets is likely appropriate for you. These headsets offer the most immersive VR experience consumers can purchase today. They typically run on external hardware such as a desktop computer. Offloading the processing work to a desktop computer allows for a graphically intense experience because of the desktop PC’s powerful processor and memory availability. High-end headsets can also allow for freedom of motion with room-scale tracking and feature-rich external controllers. Most have a very strong selection of immersive games and entertainment selections.

The drawbacks of the higher-level headsets include price and the reliance on an external computer to power these experiences.

Current examples of high-level headsets include the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive Pro, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets.

  • Mid-tier mobile headsets: The mid-tier (or mobile-powered) headsets offer a solid VR experience at a much lower price than the high-level experiences. Most of these headsets do require external hardware, but only a mobile phone that adheres to the VR device’s requirements, many of which consumers may already have. (The upcoming generation of mid-tier headsets include devices such as the HTC Vive Focus or Oculus Santa Cruz, which will be standalone and not require an external device.) Because these devices do not require a desktop computer, these headsets are far more portable. Without a reliance on tethering to an external piece of hardware or any extra sensors, these devices can be carted anywhere.

The drawback of these mobile experiences is the level of experience offered. With the limited computational power of mobile devices, the level of immersiveness can be less than that of the high-end headsets. The first generation of mid-tier devices does not offer the same fidelity of tracking the user, and the controllers are often fairly simplistic compared to the high-end options.

The mid-tier headset is often a good starter level for users intrigued by VR but not yet willing to go all in on a high-end device. They enable users to experience a taste of VR at a lower price point.

Current examples at this tier include the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream.

  • Low-end mobile headsets: Low-level headsets consist mainly of Google Cardboard and devices built around the Google Cardboard specification. These low-end devices are powered with separate mobile hardware, which makes them easily portable.

Unlike the mid-tier devices, most of these low-end devices do away with niceties like controllers or other separate hardware and software integrations. The hardware and software experience is as bare bones as you can get while still remaining “VR.” These devices are often referred to as “viewers” — a good name for them, because they’re mainly built for viewing VR experiences and worlds, with very little interactivity.

Current examples include Google Cardboard, View-Master VR, and SMARTvr.

These low-level headsets are good as a way of democratizing VR experiences. Cardboards are relatively inexpensive, so they can be branded and shipped to consumers at a low cost. The New York Times did just that, shipping out over a million branded Google Cardboards and access to their NYT VR app to their customers. Similarly, Cardboard hardware may be a good choice where replacement cost or user damage is an issue, such as within elementary schools looking to experience VR without breaking the bank.

There is no “wrong” choice of VR headset. Just as your mobile phone is different from your TV, the mid-tier headsets have a different set of strengths and weaknesses than the high-end headsets. As a simple analogy, you may love watching a football game on your 60-inch flat-screen TV at home, but you can’t carry your 60-inch flat-screen everywhere you go. The portability your mobile phone offers can be a huge benefit, and you may find you end up spending even more time on your phone than in front of your TV, even though your TV offers an arguably “better” experience.

As the saying goes, “You get what you pay for.” VR in Google Cardboard is a great, low-cost introduction to VR, but don’t think that if you’ve used a Google Cardboard you’ve experienced the level of immersiveness VR can offer. The difference in experience from a Google Cardboard to a high-end VR experience can be the difference between watching a feature film on your mobile phone and watching it in a theater with full surround sound.

For AR experiences, there is little reason to purchase a headset right now for consumer consumption. The market for consumer-based AR applications and use cases outside of mobile AR aren’t yet at a critical mass. However, there are plenty of reasons to purchase AR headsets to create applications targeted toward enterprise-level consumption. For example, if you’re tasked with building an AR application for commercial or industrial usage. These fields will likely experience tremendous growth in usage of AR. You should evaluate the specific customer needs within that space and find the AR headset that aligns most closely with the requirements of that task.

With both Oculus and HTC releasing dedicated untethered devices in 2018, and Magic Leap scheduled to release hardware within that same timespan, make sure to compare the latest set of apples to apples when purchasing any VR or AR devices. The market is constantly in flux, so make sure to find the device whose strengths align with your project’s needs.

What could impede the growth of virtual and augmented reality?

The growth of these two technologies seems inevitable, but there are potential bumps in the road you should be aware of that could potentially throw one or the other off track.

VR seems to have made it through its Trough of Disillusionment. Short of studies finding massive health risks within VR, there is likely little to impede its growth at this point. The worst-case scenario for VR would seem to be sluggish growth. If the second generation of headsets gets a lukewarm consumer reception, or if the headset and application market becomes more fragmented and confusing, VR’s growth as a mass consumer device could slow down. It wouldn’t be the death knell for VR, but sluggish market growth can mean less investment capital. Less investment capital can create a feedback cycle of slower improvements, leading to sluggish growth, which leads back to slower improvements.

AR’s growth, outside of executions on mobile, is more constrained at the moment. Limited availability of hardware to developers can create lack of development resources, which can lead to lack of depth of content. The high price point of headsets, nonexistent content ecosystem, and no standardization of experience expectations when using AR are all things AR will struggle with over the next few years.

Are there lasting physical effects to using virtual and augmented reality?

Many emerging technologies have faced the prospect of potential medical questions. When computers were quickly becoming mass consumer devices, medical experts questioned the effects staring at computer screens all day could have on us long term. When mobile devices began their ascent into the public consciousness, worries about electromagnetic radiation from the phones themselves and cellphone towers had medical researchers studying the relationship between mobile phone radiation and cancer rates.

The same sorts of questions currently exist for VR and AR. Will having a screen so close to our eyes cause lasting damage to our eyesight? Could working long term in VR cause lasting nausea? Could there be lasting behavioral effects from staying in these virtual worlds for an extended period of time?

Many of these medical effects are believed to be little more than short-term issues, but there have yet to be long-term studies evaluating the usage of VR or AR.

Most experts agree that for the time being, you can be cautious and sensible about the potential risks, but that caution should not prevent you from utilizing the technology as you see fit. Take off the headset if you’re feeling nauseated, and take “screen breaks” every half-hour to give your eyesight time to readjust to the real world. These are all standard rules you should already be following in regards to any screen time (VR headsets, computer screens, or mobile devices).

What is the future of virtual and augmented reality?

All transformative technologies have positive and negative potential. Because of its ability to be immersive, VR will likely suffer from many of the same issues other technologies experience today, but to a greater degree. Some of the potential issues of this new technology include VR addiction; users checking out of the real world and spending far too much time in the virtual. The potential to desensitize users to their actions in the real world due to the lack of consequences of their actions in the virtual world is an issue that has been cited as well.

AR could suffer from some of the same issues VR may struggle with. It also could grapple with a few issues of its own. Who owns the rights to the digital world? Should anyone have the ability to display AR content anywhere? Could our AR experiences become too lifelike? Could we become incapable of distinguishing the real world from the virtual enhancements?

These are interesting concerns or thought projects, but they’re massively outweighed by the enormous potential of these technologies.

VR has the ability to reach across boundaries and borders. The Internet connected people like never before. VR takes that power and adds in the ability to form a truly empathetic global social space. It has the capability to completely revolutionize how we learn and how we play, and perhaps most importantly how we connect with one another.

AR has the ability to enhance our everyday actions within the real world. It has the potential to help people make smarter decisions via information availability. It can make the world around us interactive. It can facilitate creating new connections with others via shared experiences and change the ways we currently work. You name the industry, and within ten years, AR may have massively transformed that industry as we know it.