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Virtual vs. augmented reality and Apple Watch for your face
AR may ultimately present a larger opportunity than VR, but the right hardware and user experience don't yet exist.
Google Glass was probably about five years ahead of its time. Beyond the fact that it was priced incorrectly and looked goofy, use cases hadn’t yet been developed or established in the culture. It was an example of novelty without much utility.
However, Google Glass 2.0 is in the works. And by the time it’s released, there may be a set of Augmented Reality use cases that prove compelling and enable the product to take off.
The Information published a piece earlier this week discussing the merits of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) and Google’s attitudes toward both “mediums.” It asserted that ultimately, Google was more interested in AR and was more bullish on that opportunity:
Google leaders including CEO Sundar Pichai and Clay Bavor, who heads a newly formed VR unit at Google, have privately said that augmented, or “mixed,” reality, in which digital information and images are overlaid or next to a person’s view of the real world, is going to be a much bigger market than VR in the long run, according to several people at the company and elsewhere.
As an indication of the rapidly maturing market for these technologies, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality now even have their own trade organization. And with the availability of a range of affordable VR headsets and numerous games and apps, VR has arrived — about 20 years after Jaron Lanier envisioned a VR future.
VR already has numerous actual and near-term cases: education, virtual travel, gaming, social, entertainment, sex/porn, even therapy. This is a multi-billion-dollar market in the making, and it could radically alter the structure of entertainment. It also holds many branding and advertising opportunities. How “mainstream” it will become is the question, which is in turn a question of content development and improvements in the user experience. Affordability is not a barrier.
AR is somewhat more speculative. At the recent Local Search Association conference, Aisle411 CEO and VR-AR Assn. founder Nathan Pettyjohn demonstrated AR live on stage. He showed and interacted with a virtual cat on stage using a Google Tango-enabled tablet.
The cat wasn’t projected onto the stage as a hologram; rather, it appeared on the tablet screen, which simultaneously showed the room in the background. It was certainly “cool,” but exposed the central challenge of AR — the hardware experience. Are people going to go around viewing the world through their smartphone screens/cameras? Some would argue we already do.
The Information says Lenovo will launch a Tango-enabled smartphone that will perform certain AR functions. Once these devices come out, there will also be a host of new AR apps. There are already a number of AR apps today (there used to be AR browsers, which didn’t catch on). However, with the exception of specific use cases (e.g., home decorating) the broader application and adoption of AR will probably be contingent on development of fashion-friendly glasses or socially acceptable headsets, HoloLens 2.0 or Google Glass 2.0.
Assuming that Google, Microsoft, Magic Leap and others can get the user experience right, which is by no means a given, there could be significant adoption of AR-enabled glasses or headsets. It would be kind of like Apple Watch for your face — a device that can be activated with a tap or mention of a virtual assistant “hotword” and can provide all kinds of information about the things and places around you. Google Glass was a very embryonic version of this. Also, recall Google Goggles, which was image-based search for the real world. That technology will rise again. Amazon is likely to become a player here, too; it has visual product/object search technology.
Although The Information’s piece creates oppositions between Google and Facebook — Google is the advocate of AR, while Facebook is betting on VR — and the two technologies, it’s not an either/or proposition. The ultimate use cases are different and not competitive. VR is a self-contained, immersive world, while AR adds content or data to the experience of the “real world.”
The underlying data, software and location awareness already exist to power AR. The harder part is creating a hardware product or “form factor” that works and is attractive and affordable.