Why am I writing this?
The objective of this article is to simply cut through the waffle surrounding Immersive tech (the umbrella term for Virtual and Augmented reality) and to explain the options open to you if you’re serious about it as part of your business strategy.
VR and AR in themselves are non-descriptive terms that are used to cover a spectrum of uses. There are multiple platforms, multiple hardware choices, multiple barriers to entry – in fact multiple everything! How are you expected to know where to start?
AR versus VR.
The first thing to get straight is that Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are different. AR overlays digital stuff onto the real world, usually through a smartphone camera or tablet. You launch an AR app on your device which opens the camera. You see the world in front of you exactly as you do when you take a photo. With AR though, there is additional, digital information on the screen that looks like it’s part of the real world. It might be a T-Rex standing in your garden, or the reconstructed model of a famous, long-lost landmark, or simply a piece of text with an arrow telling you which way to go. With AR you’re fusing the real and digital worlds, or ‘augmenting’ them, hence the term.
VR is totally immersive, meaning that everything you see is digitally reproduced. The idea is to put you and your senses in a completely different space, and this is achieved by wrapping everything around your head in the form of VR Goggles (more about those later).
AR typical uses & limitations
Most (though not all) AR is deployed through a mobile device. This naturally requires at least one hand to hold the device, and possibly the other to interact with the AR content on screen (if the app you’re using has interaction built in, such as pushing buttons to make things move). This means that if you’re using mobile AR to deliver operating instructions to a service engineer for example, it’s probably not going to work. Mobile AR works best in situations where you only need to look at something to either enjoy it or learn from it. In order to spread the practical appeal of AR, there is a new generation of AR ‘wearables’ like Hololens or Magic Leap, which effectively cross the bridge between AR and VR. These are basically AR spectacles that let you enjoy everything it has to offer and keep both hands free. For our service engineer, this suddenly makes a whole lot of sense! Think of these as the kind of head-up display a fighter pilot might see on his/her cockpit screen.
Mobile AR has great potential in the field of education, gaming and re-enactment.
The growth of wearable tech means that it can extend into training and other hands-on sectors where users might need to interact with the real world.
Aside from mobile AR, another example is broadcast AR, where the content is fed onto a large screen that also has a webcam attached filming the audience. This effectively places the AR content amongst multiple participants in a given space. You might want to check out our installation at colchester zoo for an example of this.
VR typical uses & limitations
In many ways, VR is more fragmented than AR, because it requires special goggles in order to work. These are also referred to as ‘HMD’s’ (Head Mounted Displays) and there are several types on the market that work in different ways.
We can separate the hardware choices into three distinct categories – Tethered, standalone or device-dependant. Tethered headsets are physically wired to a computer via a cable. The main advantage here is that all the processing power comes from the PC it’s attached to, so it enables much higher quality of content than other headsets might offer. The physical tethering can be somewhat constrictive though, and in some environments this is not practical. The best-known examples of tethered headsets are Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and there are a range of models available with prices from around £400 to £1000 (if you’re a UK user).
Standalone Headsets deliver a reasonable level of performance but have the advantage of being portable – the hardware needed to run VR apps is integrated into the headset. Examples of this are Oculus’ Go and Quest models.
Device-dependent models might be described as the budget end of VR. Good quality headsets such as Samsung’s GearVR are available for little over £100, but crucially they rely on a mobile device to display the VR experience. You simply download the VR app of your choice to your phone then plug it into the special connector on the headset and start enjoying the experience. The limiting factor here of course is the relatively low performance of a mobile device, so there will be a limit to what is possible. Indeed mobile VR development remains one of the biggest challenges for developers looking to satisfy the expectations of the growing army of VR users.
VR is making great waves already in training, where it’s saving significant chunks of time and money by letting staff learn in a safe, compelling and authentic way.
It is also being used in education and even to treat phobias and mental health issues, so it’s application is broadening constantly.
Gaming is another sector where VR has flourished, with Playstation’s own VR solution enjoying steady growth recently.
For many of the general populus, Immersive tech is still a new, untried concept, and those who try it for the first time are often blown away by the effect. For the savvy business this is good news, because it allows you to spread your message in a fun, engaging way without being ‘salesy’. retaining customer attention is all part of the challenge for businesses, and this is an obvious route to that.
Such is the pace of change in immersive tech that even as I write new enhancements are taking place, all designed to help AR and VR integrate seamlessly into our day-to-day life. Whether immersive tech is here to stay is a matter of much discussion, and everyone will draw their own conclusions. The indicators are though that the technology has broken through the ceiling of it’s development phase and is now making it’s way into the mainstream. AR and VR has already made a positive impact for both consumers and businesses, but mass adoption relies on a willingness by both audiences to push the boundaries further.