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Jeff Larkin

Thinking about Augmented & Virtual Reality

5 min read

I've been thinking a lot lately about both augmented and virtual reality technology. I've always found augmented reality the more exciting of the two, but I have to admit that a Ready Player One-esque persistent virtual world that spans political, geographic, social, and language boundaries is very exciting as well. I keep hoping that we're getting close to an augmented reality future, but it still seems very far away to me and I think the social challenges outweigh the technical.

In order for mainstream augmented reality, meaning widespread adoption in peoples' everyday lives, to become a reality, we've got to get past a lot of social stigmas. Google Glass had two great failings: the socially-unacceptable appearance and the unfortunate concern of secret video recording. While there's a lot of good applications for the camera, I'll set it aside for the moment. Before fully augmented reality can become, well, a reality the technology has to become invisible. Even if the Google Glass prism went away, the display of information cannot get in the way of human interactions. If the person sitting across from me can see that information is getting beamed to my eyes, it will break down the important human interaction of eye contact. There is nothing more important to showing interest, intent, and emotion that eye-to-eye contact. Try having a conversation where both parties are wearing reflective sunglasses; it simply won't be as intimate, intellectual, or personal as a conversation with eye contact. The technology has to get out of the way completely (perhaps like in the TV show Continuum?) before augmented reality can become socially acceptable and I think we're a long way from this.

Google Glass Explorer Edition
Google Glass Explorer Edition.

There's still a lot of applications were augmented reality can and will shine in the meantime though. As long as it can be made distraction-free, an AR heads up display projected on the windshield of a car can (and is) really useful. We've had cars for more than a decade now that can project the current speed up into space in the windshield and, having driven one many times, it really does prevent you from having to look away from the road to check things like speed and fuel-level. The importance, again, is for the technology to get out of the way and present useful, relevant information. Can you imagine if your windshield highlighted the upcoming speed limit sign to warn you that the speed limit was about to drop? What about if it warned you when it noticed cars beginning to stop up ahead? Heck, we already have cars that watch lane markers and tell you when you're drifting (or drifting to sleep). These are useful examples of AR that we can do right now.

AR has plenty of professional applications too. What if your surgeon can monitor your vitals or see a close-up of the affected area? What if your mechanic can see what's wrong with your car as soon as you pull in? AR will likely begin to make its way into professional applications very soon, long before we begin to see it become commonplace in the mainstream.

Of course, there's always gaming. Both CastAR and Magic Leap have shown their vision for shared augmented reality experiences. CastAR seems like it has the best chance of breaking into homes. I can definitely see a family game night over some shared-reality game. Magic Leap's vision for augmented reality seems more ambitious. They seem to want to layer shared virtual realities over the whole world, much like what's portrayed in Daemon. This is very exciting, but I have a hard time believing that it'll break out of the same niche currently occupied by Ingress players. These players will go out of their way to experience a shared virtual world and Magic Leap seems like the nest step in this direction. I don't think most people are willing to make such a commitment to the technology.

I think the rise of eSports could be the niche that AR needs to really get off the ground. You may not realize it, but there's big money in eSports. Whole football (both American and otherwise) stadiums sell out to project teams of players competing in MOBAs like League of Legends and DOTA2. There's so much money in eSports right now that some colleges have started giving scholarships to eAthletes. There's even an effort to get eSports added to the Olympics. Imagine if instead of a jumbotron projecting the game in real-time everyone donned a pair of AR glasses and witnessed a football field-sized shared reality projection of the battle arena as it happened. This is where I think augmented reality has the best chance of getting its start. Rather than attempting to layer a new reality over our world, let's start with layering this new reality in a place where people with a shared excitement are already gathering and given them an even better, more immersive experience. Don't think it'll work? The creators of Hatsune Miku, Japan's virtual pop star, would beg to differ. I think eSports tournaments are ripe for a technology like augmented reality. The fans are rabid, willing to spend money, and already excited about both technology and virtual worlds. If there's not already a company out there working on the first AR MOBA, then I hope someone reads this and gets started (don't forget me when you strike it rich).

I don't want to give Virtual Reality the short shrift. I'm an avid MMORPG player and would love to see the book Ready Player One come to reality, but I really find the idea of augmenting reality where we can maintain real world human interactions while experiencing shared virtual realities far more exciting. We're on the cusp of something amazing, so hang on to your hats! I'm excited to see what's coming.

*Google Glass image via Wikimedia Commons.