You might be skeptical about the future of virtual and augmented reality, having heard about it for a good quarter-century already. That said, 2020 has been a turning point. The pandemic drove demand for VR headsets as an escape from everyday reality. With 5G connectivity and edge AI powering a new generation of lightweight, wireless headsets - we may soon see extraordinary new concepts in everything from retail and gaming to enterprise analytics and data visualization. I say 'may' because the barriers to disruptive XR innovation and adoption are likely to be cultural rather than technological.
XR is a catch-all term that encompasses virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. Sometimes the concepts overlap, but for the sake of clarity - VR generally refers to entirely simulated digital worlds, whereas AR places a digital overlay on what you usually see. MR, or mixed reality - is a variation of AR, with one key difference: digital objects are aware of their context and can interact with their environment. An animated MR character could, for example, hide behind the flower pot in the corner of your room - or an imaginary closet might open up on your wall, revealing a pop-up retail store with items chosen especially for you.
After the VR hype of the nineties failed to materialize, it took a teenage Palmer Lucky, working out of a trailer with recycled smartphone parts, to reboot the industry in 2012. Since then, we have seen gradual improvements in VR headsets from everyone from HTC to Valve, Oculus to Sony - while in the enterprise space, Microsoft has made steady progress with HoloLens. In the next 12 months, however, two game-changing events are likely to speed up adoption.
The first is the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2. Not just a chipset but a platform that unifies 5G and AI technologies, and will likely power the next generation of devices. At least 15 global operators have signaled their intention to make XR part of their 5G offerings in the next year. As have already seen with cloud gaming, the ability to send video frames to a device over a low latency 5G network means you no longer need bulky headsets tethered to computers. Eventually, our XR headsets may look no different from a slim pair of glasses.
That brings me to the second game-shaping event - Apple's imminent release of a standalone AR device. In classic Apple style, they have been preparing the way for AR for some time, gradually introducing the idea to consumers via games and edutainment. The upcoming iPhone will feature a Time of Flight sensor, which helps determine distances between objects and the lens - and will allow for much more accurate and immersive mixed reality applications. By the time the rumored Apple Glass arrives next year, we will be already using AR daily.
In short, we are on the verge of a very different reality. Kevin Kelly calls it the 'Mirror World'. Soon, every object and environment can be enhanced or augmented with intelligence, content and interactivity - making the pre-XR digital era seem quaint in comparison. But to get there, there are 3 questions we need to consider.
1. What does it take to design amazing experiences in XR?
Designing experiences in XR is not like making an app or coding a game. Users have agency. Taking into account the decisions people make and how they react, requires specialist skills and a completely new workflow. I had a fascinating chat about this with Austin Grossman, bestselling novelist and former Director of Game Design and Interactive Storytelling at Magic Leap. Look out for our discussion shortly on the Between Worlds podcast.
2. What happens when data becomes another sense?
There has to be more to AR than just catching Pokémon. When every object has layers of data about what it is, where it came from, and what it might be - how does that change your perspective and behavior? Both as a consumer and also as a decision-maker in an organization?
3. What is possible now, that wasn't possible before?
Any new technology - whether it be the telescope or the printing press, the telegraph or the Internet, takes time before it changes the way we think and act. If we want to disrupt the way we work, should we still be representing information as files and folders in XR? What about data sculptures or dynamic flows of information? In the same way that a synesthesiac can hear color and see sound - are there new and more compelling metaphors awaiting us?
Ultimately, if XR is to live up to its promise, we need to look beyond the obvious. The technology stack and economics are finally coming into focus. Where we go from here will depend on whether we can tune out the technologists and executives intent on replicating the worlds that we already know - and start encouraging the artists and dreamers who can help us imagine entirely new ones.