As anyone who has sampled the immersive worlds of early augmented or virtual reality apps can attest, the experience can be downright exhilarating. So too will be the vendor battles that erupt and the commercial uses to emerge around the technologies.
So says Tom Mainelli, program vice president for devices and AR/VR at IDC, which held its annual Directions conference in Boston this week. Mainelli is excited about the prospect that these eventually comingled technologies will enable us to “fundamentally rethink how we create information, share information and absorb information.”
Mainelli first dove into VR, which he said basically involves “leaving one reality for another.” A recent IDC survey of more than 2,000 U.S. consumers found that three quarters of them said they had heard of VR and knew what it was – not surprising in light of all the new technology rolled out last year from the likes of Samsung, Facebook/Oculus and HTC. So yes, VR has gotten off to a faster start than AR through gaming apps and low-end gear such as Google Cardboard, but it could eventually become a subset of AR, the industry watcher said.
The vast majority of VR apps are being run on Android and Windows devices, setting up a battle between Google and Microsoft on one side, and VR platform vendors such as Steam/HTC and Facebook/Oculus, whose tech runs on Windows or Android. “Expect to see some friction as the operating system companies begin to battle the ecosystem companies for a place at the table of VR,” Mainelli says. We’re talking about a big market here, growing from 10 million units of tethered headsets/standalone devices/phone-based systems in 2016 to six times that by 2020 if IDC’s estimates prove accurate.
VR competition will increase as a flood of new content, from movies to marketing, emerges this year. “I would make the argument that the big crossover moment in VR is right around the corner. And what is that? It’s live sports. If there’s one thing a lot of people in this room would pay money for it is access to live sports.”
Commercial applications, from those for medical training to those for construction, are starting to make their mark, too. Mainelli recounted visiting Nvidia on the west coast last week and checking out how the graphics processing unit maker has pre-visualized its new headquarters building in virtual reality. “This has allowed their CEO and other executives to walk through the building before it’s built,” allowing them to tinker with everything from doors to skylights before it’s too late, he says.
Not that VR isn’t without its challenges, Mainelli stresses. Interfaces, especially when you consider the use of intrusive controllers, are still at a relatively primitive state, and VR product makers have serious compute demands on them that will only get harder as more data-intensive apps catch on. Societal impacts can’t be overlooked either, from the addictiveness of such technology to the potential for illegal behaviors (i.e., harassment) by users as VR becomes more of a social experience.
Mainelli also shared this cautionary tale: When Intel demoed its latest VR technology for the press at the big CES show in Las Vegas, the company equipped the leather seats provided with barf bags. “Some percentage of people will not be able to enjoy VR” because it will make them sick to their stomachs, and we won't know what that percentage is until bigger numbers of units ship, he says.
“As excited as I am about VR, I think AR is the real game changer,” Mainelli says, in that AR adds pertinent information to the reality we are already in and encourages more interaction with those around us.
As with VR, Mainelli sees a vendor battle taking shape in augmented reality, and one that “could be even more dramatic.” You’ve got operating system and hardware players Microsoft (HoloLens and its recently renamed Mixed Reality platform), Google (Tango, via your smartphone) and drumroll please… Apple, which hasn’t technically rolled out or announced anything yet. But Mainelli fully expects the next iPhone will support augmented reality (as has been heartily rumored about the iPhone 8 or iPhone X). “Apple doesn’t really tell anybody what they’re going to do, but based on their acquisitions and based on the fact that [CEO] Tim Cook can’t stop talking about augmented reality makes me think that Apple sees it as a huge opportunity,” he says.
Mainelli pits those companies against players delivering or readying AR-specific hardware. These include Daqri, Meta, ODG -- all of which are shipping hardware that runs on someone else’s OS -- and the much hyped and well-heeled MagicLeap.
Just as Mainelli surveyed consumers about VR, he asked enterprises about AR. More than a quarter of the 500 people surveyed said their organizations are using or testing some sort of AR software on phones, tablets or PCs.
Drivers include the potential for enabling more effective hands-free work and improvements to safety in the field. IDC sees commercial AR apps falling into two general areas: compute-intensive and creative AR applications, such as for engineers and architects, and low compute Internet of Things-focused apps for people working on manufacturing lines or climbing up poles in the field.
While AR product shipments are currently small and will be far fewer than those of VR systems by 2020, Mainelli does foresee AR software/services/hardware spending blowing away numbers on the VR side.
AR has its challenges, too, though. These include big investments needed in optics and hand/eye tracking. What’s more, networks and back-end systems will need to be bolstered to handle the delivery of data required by AR apps, Mainelli says. 5G wireless networks could be shaping up just in time for that, he says.