Let’s get real about Augmented and Virtual Reality

First published by Blueprint, March 2017
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Augmented and Virtual Reality

In the medium term the real deal looks like being AR, more than VR

Just between July and September last year, Nintendo generated $600m for Pokémon Go, a location-based AR game. With it, a camera and gyroscope on a mobile phone combine with software to display images overlaid on the real world. Rather surprisingly, the game garnered praise from Apple, which is investing heavily in AR, and from Microsoft, whose $3000 HoloLens glasses project holograms over a small field of view.

Google and Facebook also gave a thumbs-up to Pokémon Go, but with these two giants we’re talking Virtual Reality (VR) more than AR. With VR you enter a whole different world, and one which will be more and more dominated by high-resolution, 360° field-of-view video.

Google’s Daydream View, a $79 VR system, is based on lightweight headset comprised of fabric, cardboard and a single strap: you slide your mobile phone into it and, typically, play 360° YouTube videos. Here Google is up against the Samsung’s $99 Gear VR mobile-based system. The Gear’s headset, a sleek black unit which also plays 360° videos, was developed by Oculus, which Facebook acquired in 2014. Further up the market, there’s Sony’s $399 Playstation VR, which is a television-room games console, not a mobile one.

What’s the point, especially for designers? First, to combat sluggish sales, mobile phones will more and more boast AR/VR features – so this seminal product’s purposes will change over time, providing designers with new tasks around it. Second, despite the technological and style errors that sunk Google Glass (2013-15), startups are now very active developing AR ‘smartglasses’, which will be more of a fashion design item than Daydream and Gear. However, smartglasses are still a few years out: they’ll have to develop long battery lives, a range of great apps and, from telecommunications companies, both good connectivity and generous subsidies. Third, the controllers that allow operators to use their hands to steer VR will need better design and ergonomics.

There will be other barriers to mass adoption. Governments will want to regulate VR, certainly in consumer applications with children and perhaps also around health. Also, separately from mobile- and console-based VR, only a very few tens of millions of the world’s mainstream PCs have the graphics processing power necessary to render VR images in the highly sophisticated manner, for instance, of HTC’s $799 Vive, a heavyish headset and pair of sensors which conspire to turn (large) living rooms into bump-free VR games sandpits.

Perhaps there’s a bigger issue that will have to be confronted – finding a popular, accessible way to describe all this stuff. With AR and especially VR, seeing is believing. If designers can work with wordsmiths and video people to evoke AR/VR to non-users on a conventional flat screen, they will achieve a lot. Still, this cognitive conundrum may well be less tricky with AR than it is with VR: as its name implies, AR is more based on the real world than VR is. Yet sorting wheat from chaff in AR/VR capabilities looks like being a language problem for a fair while yet. Indeed, as the Wikipedia entry for 360° video tartly but rather confusingly observes, ‘VR is defined as a computer generated simulation of reality. Most of the time it is not computer generated and it is not a simulation of reality. It is a representation of reality, being made using a computer, and nothing more than that, nothing virtual, no simulation, therefore no VR’.

In the medium term the real deal looks like being AR, more than VR. AR’s consumer applications, which began with the rather primitive Pokémon Go, have excited the interest of Nintendo’s rivals; but as the price tag for HoloLens suggests, AR has important corporate (‘enterprise’) ones too. By contrast, VR is more orientated to consumers, revolving mostly around games. It’s true that VR could be used for corporate training, to put employees in prospective work scenarios; but it’s AR that will guide employees in real-life operations: to go 3D-printing, or to work with collaborators at a distance.

In future, HoloLens could be key to the work of designers. Apps allow you to model with it and 3D print the model. Already Trimble Navigation, which makes the modeling package SketchUp, has released SketchUp Viewer, which can project building designs on to a desk, allow you to look at them from the inside and add notes to them in the form of icons and audio clips. Microsoft is also in bed with the computer-aided modeling firm AutoDesk and its Fusion 360 software, offering mechanical engineers and product designers the chance to collaborate more closely.

So AR won’t all be throwing Poké Balls at wild Pokémon. In construction and new product development, it will lower costs and speed time to market.

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