Trend Watch: AR Steps Out From Virtual Reality’s Shadow in 2016
How virtual reality's sister technology is adding another layer to our reality
In 2015, countless industries clamored to be involved with virtual reality (VR). Everyone from brands (North Face, Marriott) to education organizations (Dali Museum, Google Apps for Education), media outlets (New York Times, CNN) and more have used VR to tell immersive and memorable stories. Yet, despite the VR buzz, it is its sister technology, augmented reality (AR), that is poised to take over 2016.
Though both AR and VR aim to entice, entertain and inform viewers with visual content, like most sisters, it is important to remember they each have unique and distinct strengths. AR overlays virtual objects and information into the real world without taking viewers out of their physical environment. It is especially adept at helping people envision how virtual objects would exist in their physical surroundings. Conversely, VR takes people out of their environment and immerses them in an entirely new world which has powerful implications for storytelling.
Perhaps part of AR’s problem is the very public failure of Google Glass. Launched as the future of AR in 2012, Glass offered people the ability to layer and access relevant information when and where they needed it along with a “cool factor” only Google could offer.
Companies like Virgin Atlantic and Vice rushed to experiment with the new tool. Despite initial excitement, the $1,500 price tag, privacy concerns, and numerous problems led Glass to being mocked out of existence in 2015.
Though Google Glass may be gone, Microsoft’s HoloLens is vying to carry on the future of AR. Despite both being head-mounted wearables, HoloLens is positioned as a tool for productivity, unlike Glass which was marketed as an ‘always on you’ accessory, like a fitness band or smartphone. Learning from the privacy issues that beleaguered Glass, HoloLens was not designed to be taken to the streets. Instead, it brings added capabilities to the connected home and office. Applications for tele-presence, design and prototyping, gaming, and connected appliances have already been proposed.
While the HoloLens is taking on indoor productivity, fitness tech company Garmin is using its head mounted augmented reality tool to improve elite cyclists. The Varia Vision gives cyclists a heads-up display so they can see information like speed, distance and directions without glancing down to handlebar-mounted computers. Some of the first reviews have been positive, but many commenters have pointed out the blind spot the computer creates in a rider’s field of vision. Unlike Glass, which was often used in situations that involved interaction with people, both the HoloLens and Garmin are used to enhance individual experiences. This plays to AR’s strength of bringing contextual information to the places and moments that matter without infringing on the privacy of others.
Outside of personal productivity, AR is also being employed to enhance retail experiences. The beauty and DIY industries in particular have benefitted from the ability to overlay their products into customers’ realities. L’Oréal and Laniege are both using technology developed by Modiface to let customers virtually try on different looks before purchasing products. Similarly, Dulux and Tylko’s tools bring virtually colored rooms and furnishings to shoppers’ homes to see how new items fit with the existing decor.
In these instances, AR is a tool to inspire shoppers’ imaginations, aid in planning and alleviate product concerns.
In the future, perhaps AR can go beyond simply bringing viewers information and overlaying images. MIT’s Media Lab is using AR to add digital functions to everyday, analog objects with an app called the Reality Editor. Based on HTML5, the app merges the digital and analog realities allowing the smartphone to control elements in their homes, offices, and even their cars. Although many of MIT’s illustrations are clunky from a user perspective, the future of AR promises to streamline these interactions and bake them seamlessly into everyday routines.
Where VR is for virtual experience, AR is for the real world and its utility is undeniable. Overlaying contextual information into the work environment has obvious benefits for labor and productivity. With the forthcoming launches of AR products like HoloLens, Magic Leap, and even Apple’s rumored smart car, developers are beginning to recognize the situations in which AR can provide value without distracting users. On the heels of these advancements, 2016 is set to be the year AR steps out from the shadow of VR.