AR vs VR: Growth Opportunity or Hype?

In 2014, I dawned my limited edition Google Glasses at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and was quickly engulfed by people asking me questions:

  • Did I like it? Yes, and it’s very easy to use.
  • What do you use it for?  Taking pictures, getting directions, doing search.
  • What’s the best part of it?  The voice recognition is excellent and clarity of the display.  You forget that you’re wearing it.
  • How do I get one?  It will be available to the general public some time in 2014…

It was exciting to get so much attention. It soon became a nuisance; I had to put the things away so I could get my research work completed at the show.

For years, we’ve reported on our top picks for VMI’s Best of the Best at CES paper.  The previous year, we reported on the Oculus Rift Kickstarter, which promised to deliver full immersion, virtual reality at a “price everyone can afford”.  Then in 2014, Facebook not only announced it had bought Oculus, but offered up pre-orders for new Developer Kits. The race between Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) was on!

Fast forward to today, with CES 2018 just a week away, it is not surprising that VR isn’t as hot as everyone thought, and the evidence is compelling.  For most of us, the cost is exorbitant with headsets starting at $400 to $600 and up, if you add motion controllers, eye trackers and other accessories ($1,500!).  Sales have been dismal with 2016 global headset sales, according to this month’s issue of Photonics Spectra magazine, at 5.1 million, excluding Google Cardboard, and more than half were those that used the physical display of a smartphone.

“These technologies are in a quandary.  Companies have spent tens of billions on what was expected to be the next smartphone that, according to Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, would affect the daily lives of billions of people.”

It comes down to content.  If you are reading this, you are looking at 2D content.  Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, the Movie Industry… all deliver 2D content.  Some believe that AR/VR will not arrive until these mundane milestones are transformed into 3D systems.

But, until then, the medical community has discovered that surgery can be performed without using painkillers like morphine on some patients if they are immersed in VR; Aerospace companies are reaping cost savings and achieving compliance objectives using AR technology, and the new frontier of Merged Reality (MR) that lifts the veil on a singular closed-experience, is enabling shared see-through optical experiences together with others.  Perhaps these are the unanticipated benefits of VR/AR enabling technologies that will drive future adoption, not just pure entertainment.