I’m going to start this by saying that I think it’s a bit weird that AR and VR are always mentioned in the same breath, and that mixed reality is seldom referred to as MR when the others are always abbreviated.

Augmented reality (AR) is the addition of virtual content on top of the real world. Virtual reality (VR) is a physical experience of virtual content that excludes the real world, and mixed reality (MR) is a blend of the two, where virtual and physical objects and parts of the environment interact. The line between AR and MR is hazy at best, but the environment is the key factor. AR works as an overlay, it can project images, text, video, whatever onto the world, but MR scans the environment and puts objects within it. AR will project in front of a table, MR will go under the table and stack things on top of it. There’s probably already people ranting about how wrong I am, and frankly I don’t really mind – mixed reality just feels like a logical next step for AR, rather than something that needs its own label. But I digress.

My original quibble was that AR and VR are often mentioned in the same breath, and that’s because on a surface level they seem very similar. In (virtual) reality though, there’s such a difference between them that it’s like saying that video games are the same thing as television because they both appear on a screen. The main reason this lumping together of mediums annoys me, though, is that AR is already going mainstream. Pokemon Go showed that the world is ready for it, with over 45 million players at its peak. This was mostly because of the brand and the hype, but AR was clearly not a barrier to adoption (regardless of how it’s dropped off massively since). Smartphone usage has hit a peak, according to Deloitte’s frankly lovely website – as of May 2016, 81% of adults in the UK had a smartphone, with market penetration slowing dramatically since.

A graph showing the slowing growth rate of smart phone adoption as penetration hits its peak.

Source: https://www.deloitte.co.uk/mobileuk/perfect-peak/

The vast majority of these smartphones are capable of some form of AR… and yet it’s seldom utilised. I’ll pick this back up in a moment, but I just want to talk about VR for a sec, because this is my stream of consciousness/blog post and I can do that sort of thing.

24867790474_b2184e01b0_bVR is really, really cool. I love it. I’m under no illusion that I wouldn’t immediately buy a Vive and convert a room of my tiny flat into a VR room, if it wasn’t for the fact that I really don’t have the space. That said, it’s not ready yet. It’s still cutting edge, emergent stuff. We don’t know how to create good controls for it yet, let alone create good experiences for those controls (or vice versa). It’s experimental, it’s exciting, it’s… not ready. I’ve been to a couple of VR events over the past year, and the general consensus from people I’ve spoken to is that VR is at least 2 years from going mainstream outside of gaming. As a games enthusiast and designer, I find it hard to take a step back from that scene, where VR has obvious applications and experimentation is much further along. But outside of games, the hardware is prohibitively expensive for a lot of people (the cheapest solution I believe being the new Google Pixel and Daydream combo, coming in at around £650 if bought outright), uncomfortable, sometimes nauseating, and poorly utilised because we just don’t really know how to best use it. VR competes directly with any medium that uses a screen – from gaming to television, and they’re frantically trying to adapt old content to the new delivery method, something that seldom works well… That’s not to say that experimentation now is a bad idea, we need to figure out how to best use VR for it to really take off, but it’s not happened yet.

1936px-augmented_reality_at_museu_de_matarc3b3_linking_to_catalan_wikipedia_17So we’ve got AR and VR, one where the devices needed to access it are in the hands of 81% of the UK, but is only spreading very slowly in niche projects (such as at the Mataró Museum, right) and one that is set to fundamentally change multiple industries, but has yet to find its feet. So why is AR so under-utilised and why do I complain about people talking about them together? In my opinion, the second is the cause of the first. People have this perception that VR is a future technology, which is pretty much is, and put AR under the same heading, despite the fact that AR is ready explode right now. Mixed reality is something that’s at similar experimental stages to VR, the hardware is expensive (HoloLens for example coming in at £2719 for a developer kit), and again – people haven’t really come up with a use case that justifies the expense to the consumer. But AR… AR just needs to be used. AR is so far ahead of VR technologically that we’re already experimenting with its successor, mixed reality. It’s just not being properly used in the mainstream.

“But Matthew!” I hear you say, “There are smartphone VR solutions like the Google Cardboard that use those same phones that you say can do AR, and cost very little!” To that I reply firstly how did you get in here, but secondly I unfortunately don’t ever see those being mainstream or good enough to make proper use of VR. Google have taken the learning from how people use the Cardboard, and have produced the Daydream, which is spectacularly good, but right now requires a Pixel. They’ve taken steps to democratise the smartphone and headset market (unlike the Gear VR) by sharing their work, and other manufacturers are going to take a crack at it now. The Cardboard and its like (I picked up a nice pair of Homido’s little folding glasses which are lovely) are good enough for gimmicks and early experimentation, but quality content that utilises and pushes the medium forward requires more. Those cheap solutions are, to me, a good way to mainstream VR and get people used to it being something they could theoretically have and use right now, but not an end goal.

A man wearing a VR headset with skis on his sofa, with his kid throwing snow in his face

Not really what I meant.

VR’s real strength is in interaction with that virtual environment, and for interaction you need two things, firstly a control mechanism, whether the Daydream’s tiny remote, the Vive’s very slick controllers or something more experimental like haptic feedback gloves. The second is enough device power, and that’s the real blocker. True interaction and freedom requires computing power, computing power requires a more powerful device than a lot of people have right now. Using the Cardboard or something similar does not (currently) allow this level of interaction, and that to me defeats the purpose of VR. It’s cool, but it’s nothing new. We’ve been doing stereoscopy for over 150 years, admittedly without the ability to turn your head, but interaction is the key. Maybe that’s just the games in me talking, but that interaction is vital to a truly immersive experience.

1432px-company_of_ladies_watching_stereoscopic_photographs_by_jacob_spoel_1820-1868

“Oh Margaret, you simply must try out the new Call of Duty in stereoscopic 3D” – Lady on the right, probably

I’ll wrap this up before I go on for too long, though that ship may have sailed, but in summary:

  • Stop lumping AR and VR together
  • Remember that AR is so much more mainstream than VR right now, and just needs proper application, and that’s starting to appear RIGHT NOW
  • Mixed reality is actually even further beyond VR, but is AR’s successor
  • Interaction is the core of what makes AR and VR so special, don’t just make 360 videos for the sake of it

This blog post was first published elsewhere, and was written while jet-lagged as a result of Matthew spending far too much time with virtual reality at EventTech 2016 and the AR&VR world expo.