The last century has witnessed consumer technology adoption rates accelerate at unprecedented speeds. In the modern world, new ideas and products spread quicker than we've ever seen before, thanks to increased connectivity, instant communication and established infrastructure systems. Yet, it feels like we've been discussing augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) adoption for decades. Even in Jabil's Augmented and Virtual Reality Trends Survey, participants say they expect these technologies to go mainstream within five years.
Sure, AR and VR are more widespread than they were a decade ago. Recent technological advancements in the field have revealed new enterprise use-cases, but consumers don't yet seem convinced to use the technology beyond entertainment. We've seen numerous players come into this market with the hopes to navigate it toward mainstream adoption. Some have experienced little success, while others have fallen flat. Why is this? What is holding AR/VR back?
In their current form, AR/VR devices—wearable headsets, specifically—don't have the right form factor to succeed in the market. Headsets are not designed to deliver fully immersive experiences, given their limited field of view, poor display quality and lacking acoustics, among other issues. Some of these challenges are a natural part of product design. It's hard to manage the high cost of developing new technologies, especially when there is so much to consider.
Augmented and virtual reality may be the future, but no one seems to be thinking about the full experience around it. "Experience" not only meaning the device, but also the feeling users get while wearing them. Putting the technological development issues aside, I think the biggest barrier to entry is the human factor.
It's not easy to pack world-class components, a great human experience and new habits into a single technology. As with most change, people want it to come gradually. It seems that many companies default to making headsets and products that go directly on to the user – in the hopes to create a device for "everyday" use. But consumers are just not ready be seen out in public with these types of wearables. In addition to social stigmas, the bulkiness and function (AR vs. VR, for instance) of these devices restrict when, where and in what context they can be used. Enterprise use-cases are showing early benefits that will transform how work is done in certain industries, such as manufacturing, automotive and healthcare.
Sign up for weekly updates on the latest trends, research and insight in tech, IoT and the supply chain.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society has conducted a literary review to define the most important design principles for wearable devices. I believe the following human factors are most important to consider with AR/VR wearables:
1. Aesthetics: The aesthetics of devices are an essential piece to mainstream adoption. Existing wearables tend to come in very bulky form factors, although there seems to be some laser-focus on ensuring that designs, even in their large size, seem sleek and modern. Finding the right aesthetic will increase the desirability of the device.
2. Comfort: The current design of AR/VR wearables don't allow for comfortable, prolonged usage. According to the review, "comfort involves an acceptable temperature, texture, shape, weight and tightness." Devices shouldn't limit the user's natural movements.
3. Contextual Awareness: Companies must consider and understand the scenarios in which AR/VR devices will be used. "The comfort perceived by users is strongly affected by the device's purpose, varying significantly depending on social contexts." In a recent device I was testing, I found a workout challenge where I had to move around and jump. However, the device itself was not designed to stay on my head while performing the actions.
4. Customization: Wearables need to account for all our human differences in shape, size and dimension. To engage users, devices should enable customization in size, color and appearance for ultimate comfort.
5. Ease of Use: Consider some of the most popular VR headsets on market today. Most of them use the combination of three form factors to provide the experience: the headset, a smartphone and headphones. The user experience of managing all the different pieces is clunky and takes away from the potential of VR. These interactions should be easy and seamless for the user.
6. Overload: Human cognitive capabilities are finite and limited. The number of concurrent activities we can perform are also limited. Can you think about an instance where you were having a conversation with a friend or colleague, but then they received a text message or email and started responding to it? It's likely your interaction was negatively affected by that action. The same applies to AR wearables – they may take away from in-person communications, by making the user seem unengaged.
Finally, there is the perceived value of AR/VR wearables. Enterprise use-cases certainly exist, especially for augmented reality. I'm not convinced that a clear vision, beyond entertainment, for consumer use has been painted. There is an opportunity to use existing data and learning through artificial intelligence to make AR/VR more useful for the average consumer.
Rather than focusing on when AR/VR will see mainstream adoption, companies need to take a step back and look at their business, employees, consumers and general trends to see where it might make sense to integrate these technologies. The companies who establish industry leadership in AR/VR are the ones that will seamlessly integrate these technologies into people's lives – and that doesn't necessarily mean 24/7/365.