Every technology enthusiastic is familiar with the term of “the long nose of technology”. This term refers to the usual time spent at each stage in the evolution of a new innovative idea.This empirical graph demonstrates that any invention has to go through a long period of time, before it matures and forms into a well defined technology that can actually impact our lives. Why? Some things have their own nature. In order to get from the point you shout “Eureka!” to the realization of a product, you need to refine the basic idea, change it to meet public expectation and many more essintial phases that take time.
There is no doubt that augmented reality arrived to its traction stage. If you Google “Augmented Reality” or search it on Reddit, you will get tens of thousands results. Most of them were published lately. Every technology blog publishes daily articles and reviews that refers to related new applications, hardware, SDKs or futuristic concept designs. However, in many cases, there is a consistent confusion between augmented reality, virtual reality and other hybridism as mixed reality or simulated reality. Let’s try to clear things a bit, and get familiar with some of the iconic buzzwords of each.
Point the elephant in the room… for real
The asset behind augmented reality (AR) is the ability to display virtual data over physical elements in the user’s vicinity. In other words, we would like to make the user see virtual elements once he looks at a certain physical object. There are tons of examples that showcase the wide variety of usages that AR can support. From simple location based directions to fancy animated commercials and new social gaming experience. In order to distinguish between AR and other technologies mentioned before, let’s keep in mind what is the basic user experience and what it relies on. By definition, in order to have an AR application you must be able to see the real world. This means that you are obliged to have a display of some sort with the capability to capture and identify physical object in the user’s environment. Considering those ground rules, it is very understandable why the evolution of AR hardware, and software, ended up as it was.
Image source: AREAL
Before the mobile era, the display devices people mainly used were their own PCs’ monitors. Since those PCs where not designed for outdoor or dynamic indoor usages, AR applications didn’t make a lot of sense. The rapid adaptation of mobile technology, not only gave huge boost to AR applications, but also accelerated the pursuit after the ultimate head mounted display (HMD) that will enable this desired user experience. In the field of augmented reality, such HMD is often referred to as AR glasses. We can all agree that the controversial Google Glass (a.k.a Glass) are one of the most discussed HMD. A common mistake is to consider Glass as an AR glasses. If we go back to the basic AR definition, due to its relatively small screen and its location (within the user’s field of view), we see that Glass can’t fulfill the basic requirement of augmenting the user view of the real world. To make this point even clearer we can take a look at the designated AR glasses and see that huge difference. The following are only four examples of the augmented reality glasses that are currently available on the market. Each one of them has its unique hardware, capabilities and limitations. A very encouraging fact, is that most of them even have their own SDK and developers’ eco system that impacts the product evolution and helping it to become a day to day device.
Another major aspect of augmented reality are the challenges that a developer has to tackle when implementing a new application. Since the user sees the physical objects that we want to augment, it is very important to align the virtual elements in a realistic manner. This challenging task requires a robust tracking algorithm, understanding of occlusions in the scene and maybe more. We won’t get into that right now, but keep in mind that there are many companies that are trying to solve those issue for quite some time. On one hand, this means that those are indeed not easy challenges to solve, but on the other hand… we are getting there.
Down the rabbit hole
As opposed to augmented reality, in virtual reality (VR) the experience doesn’t refer to the real world environment. The main goal is to draw the user into a realistic virtual world and create the best possible immersive sensation. The ultimate virtual reality device will be capable of generating different feedbacks that will stimulate all of the user senses in order to create this desired effect of presence. Due to current technology limitations, not all senses can be addressed using a reasonable consumer electronic form factors. Thus, retail VR devices are usually limited to video and audio streaming.
In order to generate this unique and comprehensive user experience, VR headsets mainly consist of a wide angle display screen that blocks the user’s entire field of view. Most of the VR headsets will also include audio capabilities that can be synced to the visual streams. In the pursuit to broaden the immersive sensation, one of the latest and interesting additions are the virtualization of the user’s hands and tracking of their gestures. This capability is usually achieved by attaching a depth sensing device to the VR headset that captures and tracks the user’s hands.
Once detected, a virtual representation of the hands is being displayed, in the virtual scene, which imitates the user physical ones. From personal experience, although the hands that you see are only virtual, they amplify the presence sensation dramatically. There is no doubt that the first VR glasses that got the attention of technology and gadgets fans were the ones developed by Oculus Rift. This was the first VR headset that successfully tackled technical limitations such as FPS, accuracy and latency. Moreover, it was available in a relatively cheap price and with pretty cool design (again… relatively). No wonder Facebook ended up buying Oculus for almost $2 billion at 2014. In the past few years, since the release of the first Oculus Rift development kit, the number of companies that added VR headsets to their products’ portfolio keeps increasing.
Today, in the business class of VR headsets you can find Oculus Rift’s Oculus VR, Samsung with its Gear VR, Avegant Glyph, Microsoft with it interesting HoloLens and more. The same as in airplanes, to those of us who don’t have a lot of money to spend on fancy toys, we can go to economy class of VR headsets. If you enter the phrase “VR headset” to any of your favorite online stores, you will get a wide variety to choose from. Those headsets use your personal mobile device as their computational and display units. This way they remove the need of costly sensors that are integrated in the more advanced sets. Of course there is a gap in the quality, but I think this can be a good option for anyone who just wants to get a first impression of the VR experience before spending more.
Being at two places at the same time
The expansion of both augmented and virtual reality industries is createing a wide range of possibilities to combine the two worlds and come up with a blended experience. On one end, we have the augmented reality model in which the real world acts as the main scene and physical elements are being augmented. On the other hand we have virtual reality model with its pure computer graphic rendered scene. But what if we want to blend physical elements from the user’s environment into the virtual scene? How cool can it be if I could slip the VR headset on and see my buddy, which stands next to me, as part of the fully packed action game I’m playing? Such hybridism is often referred to as mixed reality. Any combination of physical data that comes from the real world with pure virtual scene should be tagged as such. Since the mixed reality experience relies on the evolution of the eco systems of both virtual and augmented realities, it is only natural that those type of usages are still considered to be at their early stages. In addition, as it does with any new technology, this blending of real and virtual is raisin new challenges that need to be addressed.
So… which pill should I take – the red or the blue?
This exciting golden age of augmented, virtual and mixed reality brings with it a lot of new possibilities to enhance our user experience. From changing our day to day habits, to dramatically extending our gaming experience and even modifying corporate methodologies. Some may favor augmented reality over virtual reality, or the opposite, but now that we have clarified the differences between these technologies, we can be sure that there is place for each one of them and even more exciting – there is place to blend them together.