Virtual and augmented reality first entered our world through science fiction tales, television series and movies such as the Matrix, Avatar and numerous others. From the 1950s and even earlier, creative minds introduced us to worlds beyond our wildest imagination even though the supporting technology was considered light years away.
Now as companies focus on bringing what we saw and continue to see on science fiction to reality, Statista estimates that the augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) market will grow to $143 billion by 2020. Despite the significant hype and investment surrounding these technologies, the AR/VR market is still in its infancy stage and unsettled even among those driving innovation.
When asked about challenges in a recent Augmented and Virtual Reality Trends Survey, 99 percent reported technology challenges that had to be overcome for AR/VR to become mainstream. Among those challenges, the price of manufacturing AR/VR devices and limitations of AR/VR-specific and consumer devices led the way.
Sixty-one percent of survey respondents agree there is a bigger need for technology innovation before augmented and virtual reality can go fully mainstream. This technology innovation begins in a manufacturing setting.
From a consumer perspective, augmented and virtual reality are still relatively new technologies – tethered to early adopters, tech enthusiasts and game addicts. Part of this trend is due to the high prices of AR/VR devices. The average consumer currently doesn't see the value to purchase one. While some high-end devices are floating in price ranges as high as $2,000, even some basic-level VR headsets are priced higher than the average smartphone accessory such as covers and headphones.
Although there are major investments being made into augmented and virtual reality technologies, the verdict is no surprise: it is expensive to develop new technologies. Headsets and wearables for AR/VR are also more labor intensive to build.
Augmented and virtual reality require the combination of a set of disciplines to create an immersive experience – typically around optic mechanical designs. But the amount of capital required to integrate optics with such high precision requires significant volume of units to recover the investment. As these technologies advance and become more common, costs will be recovered easily. It is only a matter of time.
I believe manufacturers that specialize in high-end, custom computational camera modules and projections systems are poised for leadership in this segment. In addition, companies working with numerous manufacturers may be losing out on potential cost-savings compared to ones that can handle all aspects of manufacturing under one roof.
There are numerous limitations with AR/VR devices currently on the market. Perhaps field of view (FOV) is the biggest. Today, these devices have a FOV of up to 90 degrees, compared to the 190 degrees horizontal and 120 degrees vertical for normal human vision. For these devices to create the immersive experiences they aim to, they must capture as much of the FOV as possible.
AR/VR devices must show the projected image in a large FOV for the human eye to make the experience more immersive, which requires devices like headsets to be bulky. In their current status, the size makes prolonged usage of these devices unlikely and uncomfortable. As work continues in this arena, there are many specifications that need to be achieved to overcome AR/VR device limitations, including work on the weight, brightness, display quality, FOV, latency and finally the user experience. I believe the industry will overcome these challenges in the next five to 10 years and produce great devices at the right price point.
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Perhaps most familiar to the masses, consumer electronics can be used to experience augmented and virtual worlds. With the rise in 360-degree video and AR games like Pokémon Go, consumers can get a taste of these experiences on their smart phones, tablets and other devices.
What these devices lack are the depth of understanding and the full potential of AR/VR experiences. Users can certainly get a "flavor" of AR/VR with their consumer electronics, but are unlikely to experience it fully.
In addition to FOV issues, many consumer devices on the market today with AR/VR features are fraught with display and power consumption issues. They are not designed specifically for augmented and virtual reality experiences but are merely used as an entry point to introduce the masses to these advances in technology.
One can't overlook the potential impact of AR/VR on consumer devices, though. The consumer electronics we all love—laptops, smartphones and others—may soon become obsolete in their current form. In under a decade, you may no longer need a laptop or phone, because those needs may be met by a different device designed around AR/VR features.
As we discussed earlier, the need for a wide FOV can come in various form factors. Currently, there are three or four types of AR/VR headsets. In my experience with some of these form factors, I've found them to be comfortable to a certain extent – but don't imagine them being used for a prolonged amount of time. As expected, headsets with a larger FOV tend to be bulkier.
In the long term, we expect AR devices to look more like eyeglasses, which many of us are more comfortable with as a form factor. While this likely won't affect the mass adoption of AR, the right form factor will exponentially enhance the use of the technology. From a VR perspective, we expect more experimentation with form factor, although the current devices are focused on a full headset experience.
While AR/VR is still in its infancy, more processing power is needed to provide a true AR/VR experience. In the case of VR, most devices on the market today are tethered devices, meaning that the headset must be connected to a PC or console, which limits the movements of the user. When we're successfully able to build untethered, sustainable devices, I believe we will see more adoption of the technology.
Connectivity is critical for navigating daily life, as proven by our attachment to devices like smartphones. Although there are no worldwide standards set yet for 5G, there are some common expectations from it, including higher bandwidth, low latency and support for more connected devices.
In terms of augmented and virtual reality, I believe 5G will bring more stability to the mobile AR/VR experience. With the expected benefits of 5G, we'll have access to more and better-quality content. Having the infrastructure benefits to power AR/VR will elevate the application and use of these technologies.
Up to this point, most of the adoption of these technologies has been around virtual reality. There are products geared toward enterprise-use and others geared toward consumer-use, but there doesn't seem to be one platform or device that goes across these ecosystems. There isn't a single "killer app" on the market today.
For AR/VR devices to really take off, they must be successful across multiple ecosystems. I believe that a device that is easy to wear, wields strong processing power AND cuts across several applications will be the most desirable.
If augmented and virtual reality are expected to be a future staple, there is plenty of work to be done around the technologies and the overall user experience. At CES 2018, an analogy I heard really resonated with me. People first experienced the Internet in their workplace, which allowed them to be comfortable with the technology. The convenience of the internet created a desire to bring that technology home which led to explosive adoption – with a focus on home use. This is how I believe the scenario will play out with mainstream AR/VR adoption.