The Future of Augmented Reality: Predicting the Impact

By Paul Mealy

Augmented reality’s near-future fate is in an awkward place to predict. With manufacturers still very much in early release, pre-first-consumer generation mode, it makes the future a bit hazy. After all, how can we predict the future of augmented reality if we aren’t even sure about the present?

Using the Gartner Hype Cycle, you find that Gartner analysis of AR has placed mass-scale adoption at around five to ten years out. With the current state of AR, that feels like an appropriate prediction.

Hype is easy to come by. It’s easy, cheap, and quick to drum up excitement around potential hardware or software releases. Where the rubber hits the road is where actual products out in the field see usage in real-world scenarios. The greatest products in the world don’t mean a thing if they never see the light of day and real world usage.

Don’t get sucked in by the hype around a product (any product). Almost every product will market itself as “the next big thing.” On the flip side, don’t let the fact that a product is hyped immediately discount it in your mind either! Sometimes hype is justified, and sometimes it’s just hype.

Consumers are also a wild card in the AR scenario. Sometimes driven by marketing, sometimes driven by other desires, consumers can inadvertently drive the direction of entire industries, and they don’t always respond in ways you might expect.

That is one of the reasons that VR, while still early in its life cycle, is easier to predict the future of than AR. VR has at least seen a large-scale consumer release of a number of products. This, in turn, led to the ability of headset manufacturers to see what consumers were responding to: what worked and what didn’t. This led to further refinements and a better idea of where things are headed.

AR has yet to have that luxury. It has taken some steps out from the safety of backroom laboratories and research centers, but it still has yet to take much of a real step beyond its own front door. Mobile AR and the various enterprise-focused AR form factors have been a trial balloon for AR, akin to sticking your hand out the window to see what the weather is like.

It’s a wide world out there. It’s time for AR to step off the front porch and start to experience it!

AR has had some promising signs for adoption. Consumers have gotten a small taste of AR via mobile AR and have reacted positively. Proven technology companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple have thrown resources behind AR, new technology companies like Magic Leap and Meta are finding a reason to jump in in a big way, and general investment in the technology has yet to slow.

With AR development still in its early stages, it can be somewhat irresponsible to make any sort of guess as to just where we’ll end up both in the near and far future. But let’s live a little dangerously here and speculate!

The near future for AR adoption looks promising but slow (at least, in tech time, where every year can feel like seven years). Expect further advances in both form factor and software, as companies work to put together hardware that they feel is acceptable to mass consumers.

We are likely at least a hardware generation or two out from a time when an everyday consumer might consider purchasing an AR headset, as most first-generation devices will continue to focus on enterprise-level releases and/or developer-based releases. What that works out to in real-world time can be tough to say for certain, but Gartner’s prediction of at least five years wouldn’t be a surprise. But no one knows for sure. Anyone making time-based predictions in the tech world is bound to be made to look silly eventually.

On a long enough timeline it is easy to imagine a device that merges our VR and AR experiences into a single hardware form factor. After all, most AR devices are already being asked to do the same tasks VR devices accomplish (3D visuals, audio, motion tracking, and so on). AR just adds additional complexity. If a device can pull off a convincing AR experience (that is, truly make it feel like 3D holograms inhabit your physical world), that same device is likely powerful enough to pull off a convincing VR experience.

There are, of course, still many challenges for such a “combined” headset to solve. (For example, how will visuals work, especially as many AR images are projected reflections? How does the headset toggle between opaque VR and transparent AR?) But what was quite literally the stuff of science fiction as recently as a few years ago is now on our doorstep as a distinct possibility.

The image below depicts the Microsoft HoloLens in use in a design scenario. A designer making changes to a model on a 2D screen may see those changes updated on the fly in 3D real-world space.

virtual reality Microsoft hololens
Used with permission from Microsoft
The Microsoft HoloLens in a design scenario.

 

The promise of AR is there. As is the feeling that AR could potentially be an even larger market than that of VR. AR’s ability to mix the real world with the digital would definitely seems to lend itself more toward supporting how most of us currently work, whereas working fully in VR would require a total adjustment in how we currently approach the workplace. Both are possible, though AR may find itself more easily adapted to our current workflow, which could be a massive boon to adoption.

With AR’s long adoption cycle, now is a good time for content creators to enter the market, but make sure you understand what you’re getting into. Be aware of the market you’re entering; outside of mobile AR, the mass consumer market of headsets is not there yet and is likely a few years out. There are still plenty of opportunities to create for mobile AR or for creating applications for use at the enterprise level. Just be sure you understand what sort of market you may be targeting.

With AR, as with any tech, know your market. If you expect to become an AR millionaire within the next year by selling 99-cent holographic widgets in a headset app store, your market may not exist quite yet.

Everyday consumers are likely still a few years off from entering the market in large numbers. You may start to see AR headsets find their way into your workplace in the next few years. If you’re in charge of making those sorts of decisions, now can be a great time to evaluate how your industry could integrate this technology into your workflow. You may find that it’s appropriate to start to integrate now, or you may not, but these technologies will be here quicker than you think.

That said, if you have interest in the technology, especially as a content creator, there is no time like the present to throw yourself into AR. Getting in early enough will allow you to take chances and risks, learning and adjusting your course along the way. Early entry into the market will allow you to build up your experience and will also increase the potential for you to corner the market in the vertical you are working in.

With AR, you’re in a unique position to invest your time or talents in a life-altering technology. But AR is still young. Its maturity is likely similar to very early days of the Internet. And if you could go back in time and be one of the first to invest your time and talents into a technology as life-changing as the Internet, wouldn’t you?