Not mainstream yet

We seem to be at an impasse with AR/VR technologies1. The hype cycles have been through peaks and troughs yet widespread adoption remains elusive. Both AR and VR have been "technologies of the future" for years now, always seeming to be just around the corner yet never quite making it into the mainstream.

So where do these technologies currently stand, and how could they reshape work and play in the coming years. There are reasons to be both optimistic and skeptical.

AR vs VR

Augmented reality (AR) refers to technology that overlays digital information and virtual objects onto the real world environment. The defining characteristic is that it augments the real world rather than replacing it entirely. AR overlays things like graphics, video, audio and haptic feedback onto your natural field of view. At its heart, it’s a spatial interface paradigm

The quintessential AR experience today comes from mobile apps that use your phone's camera to create interactive effects (think Pokémon Go) but we've also seen more complex applications that can recognize surfaces and interact with physical objects. Current AR is definitely held back by being delivered through a mobile screen, but hints at the potential utility we might eventually get from adding an informational layer onto our perceptions via a headset.

In contrast, virtual reality (VR) aims to completely immerse users in a simulated environment. The goal is full telepresence - making you feel like you are present somewhere other than your actual physical location. VR headsets fully enclose your field of view with stereoscopic displays, blocking out the real world entirely. Sensors allow you to look around the virtual environment, with advanced systems adding realistic motion controls for manipulation and locomotion. In essence, VR transports you to a different place rather than overlaying digital enhancements onto your real surroundings. In contrast to AR, VR is an immersion paradigm

  • AR augments the real world, VR creates an alternative world
  • AR feels like an interface paradigm, VR focuses on immersion
  • AR overlays information, VR is about telepresence

VR has a much longer history than AR. We've had VR headsets since at least the 1990s. Nintendo launched the ill-fated Virtual Boy console in 1995, though it only lasted a year before being discontinued.

The latest wave of consumer VR kicked off in 2012 when Palmer Luckey created an inexpensive VR headset prototype called the Oculus Rift. Oculus launched a massively successful Kickstarter campaign to refine and produce the device2. Social media giant Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion, aiming to accelerate VR's path to the mainstream, with Facebook in a leadership position.

Giants in the playground

Given the massive potential windfall that would arise from becoming the dominant player in a new interaction paradigm, all the major players are laying bets in the space.

Facebook leads a gaming-focused field in VR

Gaming remains the biggest application for virtual reality by far. Sony has sold over 5 million PlayStation VR headsets, though that remains a niche segment compared to the 150 million total PlayStation 4 consoles in the wild. Smaller game-focused players are also trying to push the envelope and disrupt with premium products. Valve, creators of the dominant PC gaming platform Steam, collaborated with HTC on the high-end Vive headset. Valve also recently launched their own Index headset alongside a flagship VR game Half-Life: Alyx to drive adoption3.

Despite VR's gaming focus, the social media company Facebook, stands out as the dominant force in virtual reality thanks to its Oculus acquisition. Their Oculus Quest range exemplifies the standalone, wireless model that has been their focus and they've invested heavily in VR games and content.

But while Facebook may have the scale, they lack a killer app or must-have experience you can only get in their VR headset. The most successful games in VR have either been not exclusive, or even not available, on the Oculus platform. Furthermore, even the most successful games in VR are too niche to persuade the mass market of users to put up with headsets that are clunky and isolating. Today's VR landscape remains fragmented between different players and form factors, and no single killer-app has been able to drive adoption in a meaningful way.

Apple looms large in AR

Several companies have shipped AR headsets that have so far failed to more past the early adopter stage. Microsoft's HoloLens and Magic Leap's One are both able to overlay digital objects into your view of the real world. But the visuals only appear in a narrow field of view rather than encompassing your full peripheral vision. The real world experiences remain clumsy compared to the slick demo reels of their marketing videos4. So far the AR market appears to be more style than substance.

One company that is yet to make its move in this space, definitely has the potential to deliver on both: Apple.

Back in 2013, Apple launched its first AR effort called ARKit. This enabled iOS developers to build AR apps and experiences using the iPhone and iPad cameras and sensors... but the smart money is that this is the same stack of technologies that would be used in an AR product.

Apple has quietly continued laying the groundwork in ARKit, gradually expanding its capabilities. More intriguing, we've seen talent and capabilities being acquired, hardware features launch, and rumours of internal prototypes swirl, all of which at Apple readying an AR headset launch:

  • U1 chip adding spatial/directional awareness to the 2019 iPhones
  • LiDAR depth sensor added to the 2020 iPad Pro
  • References to an internal project codename T288 or "Garta", thought to be the Apple Glasses prototype
  • Acquisitions including Akonia Holigrahics, Vrvana, Prime Sense, Metaio
  • Key hires from Magic Leap, Occulus, Hololens and academia

An Apple AR headset could blow away earlier attempts and take AR mainstream virtually overnight. Or it may never see the light of day if the technology doesn't live up to Apple's standards. Apple is the company to watch in the AR space in the coming years.

The future of work

The World Economic Forum has prediction that by 2022, 58% of companies will have adopted VR. Honestly this seems like total fantasy given the current state of adoption but there are sectors where VR/AR technologies have already demonstrated some value.

On the VR side, training simulations are an obvious use case. Walmart has rolled out VR training at all Walmart Academies5. We've also seen VR productivity tools used in fields like industrial design and architecture.

AR initiatives in the workplace have focused heavily on hands-free augmented intelligence AR glasses or headsets for factory workers, technicians and deskless employees. These overlay contextual information and step-by-step guidance onto relevant equipment and materials to assist workers.

Of course the application that could truly tip the scales for widespread VR adoption in business is remote collaboration, or even better, remote selling. Imagine throwing on a VR headset to join a virtual sales meeting that offers the persuasive power of an in-person encounter. If this replicated the subtle cues and intimacy missing from video sales calls, it could drive massive VR investments by global sales organizations. The cost savings from travel budgets alone would be enormous. Zoom's valuation now exceeds that of any airline, so the market is hinting there is a lot of potential enterprise value that VR could scoop up if remote collaboration turned out to be its killer feature.

The future of leisure

While work applications hold practical near-term promise, the most transformative human impact of AR and VR may reside in the leisure realm. These technologies could redefine social interaction, recreation and our relationship to the physical world around us.

Even looking at the relatively primitive VR experiences already available gives a glimpse of this disruptive potential. Groups of friends can inhabit virtual worlds together where users appear as customizable avatars and meet up to play games, watch films (BigScreenVR) or explore 3D environments as a shared social experience. While the biggest metaverse properties, Fortnite and Roblox are not (yet) VR - they do hint that massively multiplayer social interaction in a 3D world is an experience that consumers want.

Early research also indicates that VR is able to generate feelings of presence, the perception of existing within a virtual or remote environment. So despite the isolation of wearing a VR headset, the immersion can actually facilitate meaningful connection and collaboration with others inside the virtual space.

Of course it remains to be seen whether building connections in VR could supplant or enhance real world relationships. A VR metaverse may never fully replicate the nuance and depth of the real world, but if you can fall in love with someone over text messages, then surely a well-rendered 3D environment could only make this more likely?

On the AR front, the consumer benefits remain far more uncertain. Google Glass serves as the cautionary tale of a standalone AR product that saw early backlash around privacy, appearance and etiquette. The notion of ubiquitous cameras overlaying information onto every public setting provoked discomfort. And the cyborg-like design seemed to alienate people left, right and centre.

Apple and other AR players must solve similar challenges around normalizing headsets in social settings and building desirability that users actively seek rather than shrink from. But lightweight, stylish AR glasses won't always be in the realm of science-fiction - surely it's just a matter of time?

When we get a socially acceptable form-factor, the utility seems obvious. Navigation systems overlaying directions onto city streets, visual translators allowing effortless comprehension of foreign languages, and unnoticeable cues enhancing face-to-face conversations all exemplify the useful subtleties AR might introduce. These capabilities will all be enhanced as machine learning and computer vision enable new awareness and perception of objects and people.

While not AR or VR, my personal bet would be that the future of leisure may actually come from hybrid immersion model. Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite and the Unreal Engine, offer an alternative perspective to AR/VR spaces. They're pioneering real-world, immersive spatial technologies for film and TV. Their Stagecraft technology, used in the production of The Mandalorian, represents a different approach to immersion, creating a virtual world around actors rather than transplanting them into a fully digital realm. This strategy could enable more natural group experiences than traditional VR headsets, and potentially drive adoption of these technologies in the film, TV and leisure industries. It could be that consumers never warm to the idea of wearing a headset and instead we all end up with a Stagecraft setup at home to get our "virtual reality" fix.

Are we nearly there yet?

Despite the hype cycles, VR and AR face concrete obstacles impeding adoption. Every new platform enables novel experiences - but also demands tradeoffs from the familiar. For average consumers, the sacrifices remain too steep while the benefits feel too esoteric.

VR currently means opting for visual displays over the vividness of the natural world. Sensory isolation comes bundled with immersion. And truly realistic virtual locomotion relies on redirected walking techniques limiting movement in physical space. These inherent tensions strain widespread appeal.

AR avoids some of those shortcomings but introduces its own. Privacy fears around always-on recording prove justified by products like Google Glass and Snap Spectacles. And bulky headset designs simply don’t pass the cool test.

The path forward lies in minimising these impositions while communicating compelling use cases that overlooked audiences crave. VR cannot remain merely a portal for hardcore gamers. AR cannot stay pigeonholed as a tech gimmick or industrial tool. Finding the promised land of spatial computing means transcending these narrow footholds and aligning with mainstream aspirations.

How quickly that alignment happens hinges on technology maturation. Most crucially, AR and VR still lack their iPhone moment - a device fusing sci-fi technology with irresistible design, applications and distribution.

Many pin their hopes on Apple eventually launching its mythical AR headset and catalyzing the ecosystem overnight. But we should temper expectations.

Apple popularized MP3 players, smartphones, tablets and smartwatches by building on nascent markets, not conjuring instant revolutions. Spatial computing will likely follow a similar path - gradual enhancements awaiting a tipping point into the consumer mainstream.

In 2017, Ben Evans compared augmented reality to the four stages in the development of multi-touch6.

  1. Research labs tinkering
  2. Early demonstrations
  3. Viable initial products
  4. Sales explosion

He assessed AR as nearing, but not quite at, stage 3. Three years later, this diagnosis still feels the same. The pioneering apps and use cases emerge in fits and starts. But most consumers wait on the sidelines until they can adopt a revolution that is fully baked.

Gaming alone is unlikely to elevate AR or VR to the status of platforms like mobile phones or PCs underpinning personal and professional digital life. VR evangelists paint visions of virtual workplaces and second lives while VR adversaries see tech dystopias threatening human agency and freedom. The truth is, most people don’t want to wear a heavy headset for extended periods of time, even if it is somehow well engineered enough to avoid them feeling nauseous. It’s hard to imagine any headset technology becoming mainstream on that basis.

The COVID-19 pandemic may indeed have accelerated AR/VR timelines and mindshare. But successful adoption likely looks less like Ready Player One and more like incrementally improved Zoom calls and immersive gaming sessions. I’m not sure that constitutes being nearly there.

The enduring changes spatial computing might eventually bring may take decades to reveal themselves. What feels clunky and niche today could subtly but profoundly shift how humans interact with information and environments in the future. Forecasting when is definitely in the realm of fiction.

The near-term reality for augmented and virtual reality amounts to holding the frontier, stoking cautious excitement while curbing the hype. These technologies will incrementally shape work and play over coming years but likely not remake either overnight. The revolution will take its own sweet time in arriving. Futures glimpsed through magic goggles merit anticipation all the same. The virtual and augmented possibilities emerging now could in time become the new reality for everyone, eventually.

  1. I discussed AR/VR in April 2020 on this podcast episode This article was co-authored by AI based on the transcript of that episode. It represents my views and knowledge at the time of recording - not necessarily my views and knowledge now (July 2023) and as such I have dated the article to the time of recording. Notably, we didn't get our first glimpse of the Apple Vision Pro until over 3 years later.
  2. It literally re-Kickstarted consumer interest in VR
  3. Half-Life Alyx drove a 100k unit sellout of the Index in Q4 2019 for Valve
  4. cough I'm looking at you Magic Leap