I've been a skeptic of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) for years. The 3D technologies have been around since the 80s, and for just as long, people have been figuring out how to strap screens to their heads.
MIT has had a wearable computing lab for years, and while many interesting technologies have been invented, the core technology has yet to break out of the lab.
When I say VR, I'm referring to immersive experiences where current surroundings are replaced with virtual surroundings via screen and headphones. For AR, I'm describing images that are added on top of my perception and experience. Think the HUD from Iron Man for AR and the Matrix for VR.
I see numerous social, technological, and mass-market obstacles to VR/AR becoming ubiquitous.
The social problems can be summed up by the Google Glass AR asymmetry effect. The human brain has evolved to perceive symmetry as beauty. Strapping anything asymmetrical to your head immediately makes you look weird. AR is meant to be worn out in public, so solving social problems is important. Headphones and sunglasses aren't weird because they are symmetric, but a Bluetooth headsets and Google Glass look odd. Symmetry matters.
The technology problems are numerous: miniaturization, latency, and proprioception all come into play. The first two are getting easier each year as technology gets smaller and faster. Proprioception, or the understanding of the body's position in space, has made little progress. Proprioception in VR can be done through external lasers, cameras and other visual systems. In augmented reality, tracking is currently achieved through combinations of image recognition and accelerometers. 3D scanning technology, like the Kinect, will aid in this field of environment detection. Latency will continue to be a challenge across the spectrum and sub-20 ms performance will be expected for truly immersive experiences that make it look like you’re interacting with your VR/AR environment.
The third problem is mass-market appeal. VR's biggest potential for mass appeal is likely in entertainment. This includes VR games, movies, thrill rides and puzzle games.
We hosted a hackathon here at Raizlabs this past weekend and I got to demo the Valve Portal preview, designed for the HTC Vive virtual reality glasses. The demo was “shut up and take my money” jaw-dropping. The tech still has a long way to go to get into the living room, but games like Portal done in VR could drive Valve consoles sales in the same way that Halo drove original Xbox sales.
I'm a fan of the Portal game, and that certainly helped sell me on the illusion. Putting the goggles on, I was instantly transported. The details were incredibly vivid in a way that I've never seen before.
The experience was immersive and incredibly entertaining. It was clear to me that this is the future of console gaming. That being said, I think there are still a lot of challenges to VR headsets hitting the living room. The current space requirements are physically large. To fully experience a game you need to be able to move around and this may be difficult in small living rooms and dorm rooms.
Beyond entertainment, I think potential markets for VR are currently limited. Facebook will have to make a compelling social play with Oculus to extend outside of the entertainment category.
On the AR front, we seem further from anything compelling; however, I view AR as being much more likely than VR to have mass-market appeal. The potential is to replace the screen on your phone with one that gets projected straight into your eye. Sounds crazy? Rumor is that Magic Leap has made progress on this front:
AR takes mobile devices and makes them more accessible. People are already glued to their phones. It makes sense that they will want an experience that is heads-up.
As a whole, the tech is still not quite there, but for the first time since the 90s I think we can see more compelling products floating on a laser-projected screen just over the horizon.