Like so many people, I’ve wondered what the chances are for Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to reach mass adoption. Both technologies have offered much promise for years now in the field of emerging tech, but have thus far failed to deliver a credible user experience to truly penetrate the mass markets. VR creates a completely virtual environment where the user is immersed in the simulated experience while equipment shields the user from their actual surroundings. AR overlays computer-generated imagery (CGI) into a real-world environment and gives users the ability to manipulate and interact with CGI objects through the application. A variety of technical advancements in the last few years are about to create a permanent shift in the VR / AR marketplace, and the addition of mixed reality (MR) solutions will also contribute to broader market acceptance. My personal experience is more with AR by way of heads up displays, which are used most in transportation. To many people these technologies are still a frill, but I believe 2018 will be the year that’s going to change.
In a 1996 essay published on Microsoft’s website, Bill Gates made famous the concept that “Content is King.” After decades of free television over the airwaves, dedicated content channels created a multi-billion dollar industry around paid TV subscriptions. Similarly, Microsoft made the Xbox brand (and the online gaming and media delivery service, Xbox Live) a household name in the online console gaming market with their highly innovative game Halo, leaving established competitors like Sega, Atari, and Nintendo to scramble for scraps in the marketplace. And of course, the internet, the subject of the famous Gates quote, having initially been a tool for government and education, eventually exploded with the advent of rich content and applications. Limitations in VR and AR technology in the past few years have dampened the appeal to mass markets to a certain extent, but widespread adoption still lags due to the need for similar compelling content and “killer apps.”
VR’s primary audience has been gamers, and gamers are notoriously picky. As a startup company, Oculus VR developed solutions to some of the toughest issues in the field, such as motion sensing, and made such strides that Facebook bought the company for $2 billion in 2014. This investment, and others, have resulted in rapid advancements in the technology and have paved the way for significant growth. Microsoft just released Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) in October 2017, which combines the abilities of VR and AR into a new benefit of the Windows Operating System. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has even set an aggressive goal of reaching one billion VR users, as reported in AR to Hit 900M Users as Facebook Stumbles on VR Adoption. As the article suggests, while Zuckerberg’s ambitious goal for widespread VR use may not be reached very soon, the more promising trend seems to be the development of AR.
Independent industry analysts are actually forecasting 900 million AR users by the end of 2018, according to AR to Hit 900M Users as Facebook Stumbles on VR Adoption. AR technology does not require the processing power of VR or even additional headsets to make the experience worthwhile. Due to expected growth in the field, combined spending on AR and VR is forecast to grow dramatically. Annette Kiesewetter, in AR/VR: A Reality Check, cites International Data Corporation (IDC) reports that project revenue in the space will grow from $6.1 billion in 2016 to $13.9 billion in 2017 — an increase of 130%. Gaming generally produces the most excitement for users, but more practical applications for smartphones will drive the growth in broader consumer markets, businesses, and education. Kiesewetter further explains that “most of these devices can not only show virtual images in real-world space, they have the ability to send exactly what the user sees to an expert miles away,” making collaboration easier and more straightforward.
Collaboration will likely be a key factor in the adoption of these technologies. Facebook, as the dominant force in social media, is developing Oculus Rooms as a social media VR application. The company is also developing the Facebook Camera Effects Platform to exploit the growth in AR. Microsoft understands the importance of social media in the marketplace as well, and created Cliff House as an answer to Facebook’s Oculus Rooms. Further, Microsoft purchased the established VR social platform AltspaceVR in order to build “the world’s preeminent mixed reality community,” as reported by Verge in Microsoft acquires VR social network AltspaceVR. These industry leaders, and many others, are making enormous investments into applications and content for both AR and VR. AR will likely grow at a faster rate, since the applications take advantage of advances in mobile technology. VR will grow a little more slowly, at least until a successful “killer app” (likely based on the ability for users to collaborate) makes adoption of the technology compelling — but current projections are promising nonetheless.
The winners will be the consumers, who are no doubt going to benefit from all the uncertainty on platform adoption. When there is competition, there’s innovation.