Q&A: Augmented Reality and its Prospects
Reality as we know it is becoming blurred by the introduction of new technologies, which are set to reshape the way consumers interact with devices and their surroundings. Augmented reality, an amalgamation of virtual reality and real life, is the latest technology to provide an immersion environment that can be controlled without traditional physical button-pressing techniques. Its potential applications on a business and consumer level are numerous, despite its relative infancy.
- What are the differences between virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR)?
- In what industries does augmented reality offer practical applications?
- Is augmented reality a natural fit for wearable tech?
- What are the primary challenges to its success?
What are the differences between virtual and augmented reality?
- VR was an earlier concept that has long been held as the peak of technological progress, romanticised as it was by science fiction. While VR continues to be largely associated with gaming, a number of industrial and business segments already implement the technology. However, the idea of creating an entirely virtual world is an expensive and logistically challenging format for any industry, with VR yet to truly make it into the mainstream;
- By contrast, AR is a more recent revelation and looks to bring much more immediate results, as it only looks to “augment” certain parts of our environment as opposed to recreating it from scratch. Developers can create images in applications that blend in alongside content in the real world, with users able to distinguish between real and augmented;
- In terms of consumer goods, the most obvious example of AR is the Google Glass, an Internet-connected glass eyewear that allows digital multi-functionality in tandem with daily routines. In terms of VR, the Oculus Rift headset (whose developer was bought by Facebook for US$2.0 billion in 2014) and its focus on creating wholly immersive 3D experiences is the torchlight product.
In what industries does augmented reality offer practical applications?
- AR has the capability to utilise sophisticated motion-sensing cameras to help devices create a convincing model or image. This allows for the physical manipulation of digital 3D models within a real physical space. In essence, any industry that requires such a model, complete with moving parts, animations or other actions can utilise AR;
- Retail is a major market for augmented applications, especially for goods that require close inspections by consumers, both remotely and on-site. High-end car manufacturer Ferrari has already developed an AR app for its showrooms that demonstrates the inner workings and aerodynamics of its cars through a digital handheld device. If similar products can be moved into the online space, AR could transform the world’s US$840 billion e-commerce industry (as of 2014);
- Gaming is a natural fit for AR, and the technology is making its biggest strides in this market. Magic Leap, a virtual reality company funded by Google, released in early 2015 demos of its AR games, which show capability to scroll, move and push things in real time in real space via the use of a headset. Also in early 2015, Microsoft unveiled its HoloLens, which brings high-definition holograms to life. There remains considerable debate whether AR or VR will be the future of gaming, but AR has the benefit of allowing players gameplay without disconnecting from the real world. The global digital gaming market had a retail value of US$18.8 billion in 2014.
Is augmented reality a natural fit for wearable tech?
- AR apps for iOS and Android devices have flooded the market since 2014, yet the real future of the innovative technology seems destined for wearable tech. The wearable tech market has struggled to find its purpose despite the fanfare of the Apple Watch launch, but a device that offers an AR screen or hologram projector for multipurpose use can become an invaluable tool. Almost 260 million units of wearable electronics are forecast to be sold by 2018 globally;
Global Wearable Electronics Market and Mobile Internet Penetration: 2012-2018
Source: Euromonitor International from trade sources/national statistics/International Telecommunications Union (ITU)
Note: Wearable electronics data is forecast from 2014 to 2018; Internet penetration data is forecast from to 2015 to 2018
- The smartphone is the bridge between AR and wearable tech, offering a proven platform for developers to launch their AR apps. Once a mainstay of the smartphone experience, AR will be integrated into wearables. A study published in early 2015 by technology research specialist Juniper Research predicted the AR market to reach a value of up to US$6.0 billion by 2019, with more than 200 million mobile users having AR apps on their devices.
What are the primary challenges to its success?
AR will change how consumers interact with technology and data. The digital opportunities are almost endless, ranging from switching off utilities remotely through an app, to identifying potential obstacles on the road for connected cars. Contact lenses may be all that is required to access online information at the blink of an eye by 2020. However, there are also significant obstacles to this nascent technology:
- One of the biggest bottlenecks to AR expansion is the relative low number of people with access to the web and, especially, mobile Internet technologies. Globally, only around 34.0% of mobile subscriptions were connected to the web and penetration of the Internet as a whole stood at 37.0% of the world’s population in 2014. When fewer than half of the global market is able to view webpages, AR remains a cutting edge product well ahead of its time;
- The Google Glass has also exposed the issues of privacy and the use of AR technologies in public. AR-enabled wearable devices that capture data in a surrounding environment cannot help but record external information related to other individuals or enterprises. Germany has a strict data privacy law that prevents Google Glass from coming to market and other governments have expressed concern at the product. For AR to go mainstream, either consumers will have to waive their privacy rights or new tech will emerge that guarantees a degree of discretion;
- AR use provides considerable challenges to broadband bandwidth, which is already in short supply in some advanced markets. A standard remote AR user will be sending large amounts of data to servers constantly, thereby creating high demand for upstreaming. Related to this are other shortcomings of today’s mobile technology, such as short battery life and slow broadband speeds. Investments in telecoms, which reached a global total of US$324 billion in 2014, would need to ramp up significantly to create an AR-friendly environment.
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