Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are often mentioned in the same breath, but there are significant differences between the two technologies -- although they also share many features.
VR typically immerses the user in a virtual world via a headset that largely isolates you from the real world. AR, on the other hand, inserts virtual objects and information into the real world, augmenting your experience of it via a headset that, ideally, is as discreet as possible.
Although VR opens up potentially unlimited virtual worlds, it's a spatially restricted experience as far as the user is concerned. You won't be straying far from a powerful PC when using a cutting-edge immersive VR system such as the Oculus Rift or HTC's Vive Pre, for example. And although less immersive ('ambient') smartphone-based systems such as Google Cardboard and Samsung's Gear VR are available, you're hardly likely to walk down the street wearing one.
By contrast, AR, almost by definition, requires that user be able to move around relatively freely in the real world. That's why Microsoft designed its HoloLens to be a self-contained, battery-powered 'mixed reality' platform, and why the field-worker-focused DAQRI Smart Helmet is similarly autonomous. Meanwhile, at the even more mobile end of the scale, Google Glass -- now discontinued, but reportedly undergoing a revamp called Project Aura -- has inspired a number of 'smart glasses'-style AR headsets, including the Meta 1. 'Smart headphones' with a display component, such as Opinvent's Android-based ORA-X, are another truly mobile AR form factor.
The simplest way to implement AR is passively via markers, such as QR codes or PTC/Vuforia's just-announced VuMark system, that trigger the access and presentation of relevant information. Where markers are not available, more computationally demanding image recognition (especially with positional tracking of the user) is required.
The canonical use case for virtual reality is gaming (and other forms of entertainment), but professional applications are emerging for both VR and AR in areas like healthcare, architecture, education, product design, manufacturing, retailing, transportation, logistics, exploration and the military. Other articles in this special report will explore some of these in detail.
The amount of noise currently surrounding VR and AR -- there was plenty of volume at the recent CES mega-show in Las Vegas, for example -- can obscure the fact that these technologies are still a long way from the mainstream. Take this author's experience, for example: I first heard about virtual reality in the late 1980s, when pioneers like Jaron Lanier were evangelising the term and exploring its possibilities. But I have yet to use VR or AR for anything resembling 'work' to this day, and don't expect to -- outside of writing reviews -- for several years to come.
The pace of development is undoubtedly hotting up though, as the progress of both VR and AR through Gartner's Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies in recent years demonstrates:
According to Gartner, virtual reality and augmented reality have both negotiated the over-hyped 'Peak of inflated expectations': VR is about to begin the climb up the 'Slope of enlightenment' towards mainstream acceptance and the 'Plateau of productivity', while AR is still heading towards the 'Trough of disillusionment', which is about to be vacated by VR. Both technologies are expected to reach maturity within 5-10 years.
Google Trends' analysis of searches for the two terms, meanwhile, shows that VR was dominant until mid-2009, when AR superseded it for a few years, before returning to prominence after 2014:
So, VR is ahead on the adoption curve, with AR hot on its heels. But it's still relatively early days for both technologies -- which, as we shall see, may in time converge.
Virtual reality is all about convincing the brain that a computer-generated 3D environment delivered to your eyes via a headset is 'real' -- a concept known as 'presence' in VR circles. Anything that doesn't look 'right' to our visual system may deliver a sub-par experience, or even cause dizziness, disorientation, nausea and headaches. This is less of a problem with AR, because you can still see the real world.
According to Oculus VR's chief scientist Michael Abrash, the components of presence (and minimum requirements) are: field of view (≥80 degrees); resolution (≥1080p); pixel persistence (≤3ms); refresh rate (60-95Hz); global display (all pixels illuminated simultaneously, unless low-latency eye tracking is used); optics (1 or at most 2 lenses per eye); optical calibration; tracking (rock-solid xyz and orientation); and latency (20-25ms, motion-to-last-photon). Any implementation in which one of these requirements is seriously lacking will compromise the illusion of reality.
Last year (Q3 2015), industry specialist Digi-Capital undertook a detailed technical audit of the available VR and AR platforms, measuring 26 benchmarks across 7 'critical success factors' -- mobility, vision, immersion, usability, flexibility, wearability and affordability. Best-in-class benchmarks for each technology are summarised below:
As Digi-Capital points out, these are benchmarks from different companies' products, so they're not yet available in any individual device -- when they are, "That will be AR/VR's defining iPhone moment," says the analyst firm.
Here are brief descriptions of some of today's leading VR and AR platforms in different categories:
HTC Vive Pre
The most-cited 'product in 'best-of' listings at the recent CES 2016 was HTC's immersive VR system, created in conjunction with game developer Valve. The current incarnation, Vive Pre, is a second-generation developer kit; preorders for the April consumer launch kick off on 29 February.
The Vive Pre delivers a state-of-the-art VR experience, with the key added feature is that it's a room-scale (4.5m x 4.5m/15ft x 15ft) system: you're still tethered to a powerful host PC (requirements TBA), but HTC's Chaperone system allows you to overlay enough of the real world on demand -- via a combination of wireless 'Lighthouse' base stations and a camera mounted on the sensor-laden headset -- to avoid bumping into the furniture as you negotiate the tracking space.
Vive Pre uses two 1,080-by-1,200 OLED displays with a refresh rate of 90Hz and a 110-degree field of view, and includes the Lighthouse base stations plus a pair of handheld controllers (which are also tracked by the base stations). Launch pricing has yet to be announced, but is expected to be around $500-$600.
The best-known immersive AR system is probably Microsoft's HoloLens, a self-contained 'smart-glasses'-style headset containing a Windows 10 computer with battery life currently estimated at between 2.5 and 5.5 hours.
First unveiled in January 2015, HoloLens uses an array of optics, sensors, cameras and microphones to create virtual 2D or 3D objects ('holograms'), track your eye movements and gestures, and respond to voice commands as you interact with the resulting 'mixed reality' environment -- which also includes impressive spatial sound capabilities. As well as the standard CPU/GPU combo, the HoloLens computer includes an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) and a Holographic Processing Unit (HPU) that handles eye-tracking, gesture information and environment mapping.
Currently, HoloLens holograms only appear within a 'magic window' that occupies a limited portion of your field of view -- something that wasn't evident in Microsoft's early gaming-heavy keynote demos, and is unlikely to change substantially before launch. Gamers may be disappointed, but this will be less of a problem for business applications, which are a key target market for HoloLens.
HoloLens developer kits will be available to Windows Insider members in the US and Canada during Q1 2016 for $3,000. Microsoft also recently opened an experience center at its flagship New York store, where developers can try out the platform. The final launch date and price for HoloLens have yet to be announced.
Samsung Gear VR
An update from the more expensive Innovator Edition, the Gear VR, which works with a range of high-end Samsung smartphones (Galaxy Note 5, S6 Edge+, S6 and S6 Edge), is a nicely-designed 318g dual-lens headset that can accommodate glasses-wearers. It includes a Micro-USB pass-through port for charging the phone, a focus adjustment wheel and a volume control; for navigation, there's a touchpad and a back button.
The 2,560-by-1,440-pixel Super AMOLED screens on Samsung's high-end handsets deliver good resolution, although the refresh rate is only 60Hz. The field of view is 96 degrees, which is good enough for 'presence' (see above), but there's no spatial tracking of your head position: Google's Project Tango is currently the only smartphone platform with the required 3D motion tracking and depth sensing technology (Lenovo is set to be the first to deliver a Tango-based handset later in 2016).
As far as software is concerned, Gear VR is almost exclusively consumer-focused at the moment (gaming and 360-degree video), but business applications are likely to appear in due course.
DAQRI Smart Helmet
A combination of hard hat, Robocop-style helmet and safety goggles, the 1kg Smart Helmet is designed for 'all-day wearability', and has the battery life to match. The helmet's computer is based on a 6th-generation Intel Core m7 processor, and the sensor array includes an Intel RealSense R200 360-degree depth-sensing camera, a high-definition 13-megapixel camera, a low-res camera for use with the IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) for helmet positioning, and a thermal camera. The ruggedised see-through AR display uses a high-definition LCoS engine and has a 100-degree field of view.
The DAQRI Smart Helmet will be available this quarter (Q1 2016), with prices depending on the number of units involved and the software package that goes with them.
The VR and AR markets
UK-based analyst/consulting firm Beecham Research has recently examined the enterprise AR market with specific reference to blue-collar workers, publishing a report in January entitled Augmented Reality and Wearable Technology - an operational tool for the enterprise.
According to the report's author Matthew Duke-Woolley, a lot of potential enterprise AR adopters are currently playing their cards close to the chest: "They don't really want to publicise what they're finding, because it's a cut-throat business -- in logistics, for example, the margins are quite tight, so if you can get a 10 or 15 percent cost advantage in your process, you stand a really good chance of beating the opposition."
Nonetheless, there are plenty of pilot AR programmes underway, says Duke-Woolley -- particularly in business operations, logistics and retail "because these are areas where access to knowledge systems is going to be most beneficial." But AR will also be important for communication and collaboration in all of the main business-to-business sectors, he adds.
To give a flavour of business AR in action, Duke-Woolley cites this video from SAP and smart-glasses manufacturer Vuzix, which shows a field-service engineer using a smart headset for outdoor vehicle navigation, indoor personal navigation, task list display and the identification of an individual part that needs attention:
The market for these kinds of applications is certainly hotting up. In November last year ThingWorx developer PTC acquired AR platform specialst Vuforia from Qualcomm for $65 million. Last week, the companies made a bid to become the enterprise AR standard, introducing a new VuMark system for accessing AR content and extending Vuforia's platform support to include Windows 10. Here's what Vuforia's ecosystem currently looks like:
You can see the announcements and demos from PTC's ThingEvent presentation here.
So how far can AR go? "Augmented reality has the potential to completely eclipse the market value of virtual reality," says Duke-Woolley, who notes that "the problem with virtual reality is that it takes you out of the real world, and that's not really a very good application for work."
Whereas the virtual reality market is awaiting its 'killer app' (most likely a game or some other form of immersive entertainment), that's not so much the case with AR. "With augmented reality, there need to be more hardware iterations," says Duke-Woolley. "The software is very advanced, but because there's relatively low adoption of the hardware at the moment, it's not worth it for the hardware companies to iterate as often."
As far as value is concerned, Beecham Research's report forecasts that the 'blue collar' portion of the augmented reality market -- omitting any consumer components -- could reach $800 million by 2020. That's more conservative than Juniper Research, which last year placed a $2.4 billion value on the enterprise AR market in 2019 -- up from $214 million in 2015.
Digi-Capital, meanwhile, sees an overall VR/AR market totalling $120 billion by 2020, with AR outpacing VR around 2019 and accounting for 75 percent of the market ($90 billion). Here are the expected revenue shares for the two sectors in 2020:
As you can see, the 'Enterprise AR' segment of Digi-Capital's chart is a fraction of the $90 billion total -- but still a long way ahead of Beecham Research's conservative $800 million estimate. Both analyst firms agree on one thing, though: augmented reality is a much bigger potential market than virtual reality.
Over time, the lines between VR and AR are likely to blur: immersive VR headsets will admit the real world via video-pass-through or other methods (for safety purposes and mixed reality capabilities) and should eventually be able to lose the wired tether to a host PC. Meanwhile, AR platforms will be able to deliver increasingly immersive experiences as headset-mountable technology gets smaller, faster and more power-frugal.
Perhaps one day we'll all wear discreet but powerful and long-lasting wireless headsets that combine the functions not only of today's VR and AR gear, but also our smartphones. Before that day arrives, over the next 5-10 years, we'll see avid gamers spend increasing amounts of time strapped into immersive VR headsets, and mobile professionals sporting AR smart glasses or helmets that help them complete their work quicker and more efficiently.
One more thing: there's an elephant in the VR/AR room, by the name of Apple. True to form, the company has offered nothing explicit on its plans for this market, although there are plenty of clues for the legions of Apple-watchers to pore over. Something car-related is a distinct possibility, for example, given the existence of the CarPlay platform and Apple's 2015 purchase of Metaio, a Volkswagen offshoot that develops AR software.
Apple's most recent comment on the subject came from CEO Tim Cook at the Q1 2016 earnings call last week, when he was asked (by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster): "I know you can't talk about new products, but...any high-level thoughts on the virtual reality theme: do you think this is more of a geeky niche, or something that could go mainstream?" Cook's response was: "No I don't think that it's a niche. I think it can be...it's really cool and has some interesting applications."
As the VR/AR market takes shape through 2016 and beyond, Apple will eventually break cover -- and what could be more natural for the company whose late co-founder was famously described as operating in a 'reality distortion field'?