The term ‘augmented reality’ has been around since the early 1990s and is used to describe any technology that overlays a digital interface over the physical world. Until now, augmented reality has involved projecting opaque holograms to blend into what people see in the real world. Virtual reality takes a very different approach and immerses a person in a fully digital world by projecting stereoscopic 3D images onto a screen in front of your eyes.
A number of virtual reality headsets are going to hit the market late this year into next year:
- HTC Vive is hoping to hit the market by Christmas of this year. This is being developed in conjunction with Valve. This device will be a VR headset that will incorporate some augmented reality, which will allow a user to move and interact with virtual objects.
- Oculus Rift, owned by Facebook, is perhaps the most anticipated release and is expected to hit the market sometime in 2016.
- Sony is planning on releasing Project Morpheus in 1Q 2016. This device will be the first VR device integrated into an existing game console.
- Samsung will be releasing its Gear VR sometime in 2016. This device is unique in that it’s powered by the Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
- Raser will be releasing a VR headset based upon open source software that they hope will allow for more content delivery. Dates for market delivery are still not known.
All of these first generation virtual reality devices are for gaming and, at least in the first few generations, that will be the primary use for these devices. Like with any new technology, price is going to be an issue for the first generation devices, but one has to imagine that within a few years these devices might be as common as, or even displace, traditional game consoles. The idea of being totally immersed in a game is going to be very attractive.
There are two big players in the augmented reality market—Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Google-backed Magic Leap. These devices don’t have a defined target release date yet. But the promise for augmented reality is huge. These devices are being touted as perhaps the successor to the smartphone and as such have a huge market potential. This list of potential applications for an augmented reality device is mind boggling large, which must be what attracted Google to buy into Magic Leap.
The MagicLeap works by beaming images directly into a user’s retinas and the strength and intensity of the beam can create the illusion of 3D. But as with Google Glass, a user is also going to be able to see the real world behind the image. This opens up a huge array of possibilities that range from gaming, where the device takes over a large share of the visual space, to the same sorts of communicative and informative functions done by Google Glass.
The big hurdles for augmented reality are how to power the device as well as overcoming the social stigma around wearing a computer in public—who can forget the social stigma that instantly accrued to glassholes, those who wore Google Glass into bars and other public places? As a device it must be small, low power, inconspicuous to use, and still deliver an amazing visual experience to users. It’s probably going to take a while to work out those issues.
The two kinds of devices will compete with each other to some extent on the fringes of the gaming community, and perhaps in areas like providing virtual tours of other places. But for the most part the functions they perform and the markets they chase will be very different.