Augmented reality, virtual reality, and what is being dubbed as mixed reality were once only in the realm of science fiction, far more likely to be seen in TV and movies than actually being used in our homes. But in the last couple of years, we have seen a revolution in AR and VR, delivering products and innovations that are finally making them a mainstream reality.
Of course, virtual reality has been around for some time in movie theatres, and numerous augmented reality apps have appeared over the years, but both have always felt something of a gimmick, never really delivering the potential of either technology.
So, how close are we to the AR and VR we've always imagined? Hollywood and forward-thinking tech blogs have been promising us truly augmented experiences for years, but are we finally getting closer to the tech many of us have been dreaming of?
Virtual reality has certainly become more of a mainstream product, especially with the introduction of numerous VR headsets like Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, PlayStation VR, and Oculus Rift. They got off to something of an inauspicious start, but the later technology and software have been excellent, and the applications and games are quickly improving. Sony's PlayStation VR is superb — actually far better than I was expecting from a mass market product. Similarly, Oculus Rift is quickly getting better, to the point where experiences are genuinely immersive and the VR works as far more than a technological gimmick, actually improving the overall experience of both films and games.
Of course, there is still room for technical improvement within the VR space — in particular, the weight and form of the headsets. Currently, devices are quite bulky and heavy, resulting in discomfort over time and a subsequent limit to how long people can engage. Field of view (FOV) also needs to be improved, as it's currently limited to 110 degrees. Improving this to 180 or 220 will significantly improve the overall user experience.
Ideally, VR needs to move into 6DOF (six degrees of freedom), where your entire body is tracked in a fully 3D environment. I think the advent of this technology will deeply impact immersion and experience. Of course, to fully achieve this, headsets need to be detached from a computer rather than be the wired experience of something like the PlayStation VR.
Google appears to be the closest to delivering this wireless 6DOF experience with WorldSense, in partnership with HTC Vive and Lenovo. WorldSense is able to provide 6DOF via standalone headsets (dubbed Daydream headsets), and they're slated to be released in late 2017.
AR (augmented reality) has also seen major improvements in the last couple of years, particularly with the introduction of ever-improving AI from the likes of Google and Facebook.
Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg unveiled audacious plans for a "platform for augmented reality," covering their improving AI engines for AR at F8, Facebook's yearly developer conference. Essentially, Zuckerburg and Facebook plan to transform the camera on smartphones into an AR engine, allowing them and external developers to build digital effects that are layered over your camera. Giving his keynote speech, Zuckerburg said:
"This will allow us to create all kinds of things that were only available in the digital world. We're going to interact with them and explore them together."
Another industry pushing innovation in AR is sport and leisure, especially in companies like Oakley who have long championed the integration of technology in their products. The new and improved version of a range of Oakley goggles called Airwave 1.5 is particularly exciting, featuring a HUD (heads-up display) that rivals those experienced by fighter pilots. Designed to be worn by skiers and snowboarders, the HUD displays real-time information for the wear, displaying metrics such as speed, distance, altitude, temperature, and even air time and jump distance. The virtual 14-inch screen, displayed in the bottom corner of the goggles, also provides navigational information via pre-loaded maps and can even deliver smartphone notifications and music library control. It's a step above the consumer HUDs available in modern cars, such as those in the BMW M5 or Audi A7, and gives us a glimpse into the future of mainstream HUDs and integrated (actually useful) AR.
It would appear that both AR and VR are making genuine strides into the mainstream, although applications appear to be split between real-time information (AR) and entertainment (VR), with little crossover between the two. Whatever the case, the future certainly looks exciting for both technologies, and I can't wait to see what innovations await us in the rest of this decade and beyond.