Yesterday at the San Francisco based NeuroGaming Conference a panel of experts in the business of creating augmented reality (AR) devices gave us their insights regarding the future of augmented reality technology, its potential growth, and implications for our social lives. One thing the entire panel seemed to agree upon: in the future our pockets will not be laden with smartphones, instead, we will be wearing head-mounted displays. According to these experts, AR is approaching an explosion in adoption that will fundamentally alter how we interact with technology, the world, and each other; from the perspective of these aficionados a blending of virtual and real world experience will define our future.
In recent years, we have heard much about the development of virtual reality (VR) devices and even seen many come to the consumer market, such as Samsung's Gear VR. For clarification, AR and VR only have one thing in common: head-mounted displays. Beyond that, they are wildly different technologies. In contrast to AR, virtual reality imposes a virtual world on your sensory experience, essentially blocking out the real world, which makes it great for media, gaming, and exploring purely virtual environments. AR, on the other hand, seeks to blend the virtual and the real world by overlaying additional information on top of our usual experience. Google Glass is an AR device, although it doesn't persistently sit on top of our experience and augment reality, it simply provides information and functionality that would typically be accessed via a smartphone in a head-mounted package. Much more ambitious devices, such as Microsoft's HoloLens, make virtual objects and information a part of our actual experience.
The potential of AR technology is enormous, but the technology is incredibly difficult to develop and is largely in its infancy. Most of the use cases currently developed for AR are restricted to a particular environment, such as a classroom or factory floor. When confined to a specific environment it is much easier to tailor AR experiences; as soon as you broaden use cases to every conceivable environment controlling for things such as lighting, reflections, and surrounding objects (trees) becomes much more difficult. Unlike VR, which is on the verge of exploding and becoming mainstream, realizing AR's true potential lies much further in the future. However, this hasn't hampered or discouraged development because some, such as Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz, believe AR devices could replace all computing devices in the future. If this vision of AR is able to materialize the market for these devices could be very lucrative; Digi-Capital forecasts the AR market could be four times larger than VR by 2020.
The social and health implications of AR are also quite compelling. Smartphone usage has been slowly consuming a greater portion of our attention and lives since the beginning of their rise in 2008. Analytics firm Flurry, released data in late 2014 that indicates daily mobile phone users spend 3 hours and 45 minutes on their smartphones per day, finally edging out TVs 3.5 hours to become the most avidly viewed display in our lives. This is very concerning because the more time we spend staring at our smartphone the less time we spend looking one another in the eyes and socializing, not to mention being physically active. zSpace CTO Dave Chavez is certainly aware of the social isolation caused by smartphones, and possibly VR in the future, and hopes that AR will help because it does not fully monopolize one's attention and perception: "I think we want to look at each other and interact with each other because that's how we've evolved for however long it's been."
In addition to detracting from socializing beyond a screen, the proliferation of smartphones has had a negative impact on our posture. A condition comically referred to as text-neck, has been increasingly documented by surgeons and researchers. The condition is unsurprisingly caused by constantly being hunched over mobile devices and results in the misalignment of the spine over the long-term, which is incredibly difficult to fix. Aside from being very painful, misalignment of the spine can affect one's overall mental and physical well-being. The spine helps protect the nervous system, which controls and coordinates most of our bodily functions and all of our cognitive functions. If AR devices were one day able to replace our smartphones, or at least decrease our usage of them, we could reduce potential health issues. Since AR devices free us from constantly staring down at a screen, we could also be much more active whilst staying connected, which is arguably on the decline because of smartphones.
The panel of AR experts at the NeuroGaming Conference certainly paint an interesting picture of our future. While we obviously have to wait and see if their claims and predictions come true it is not difficult to imagine a world where head-mounted displays are the norm. The rapid rise of VR technology, the sheer number of companies developing AR devices and applications, and the potential it has to replace other forms of computing (a lot of dollars to be made as a form factor is replaced) suggest AR has a significant role to play in our future. All things considered, the burning question is not whether AR devices will become mainstream, but when.