Virtual reality is a technology that has been on everybody's lips for some time now, having been rediscovered after an initial spike of interest in the 1980s science fiction movie industry. However, virtual reality has been bubbling along under development for the last forty years together with its less glamorous cousin, augmented reality. Both of these two technologies can use similar hardware for the experience and different software, but unfortunately despite the considerable advances made in technology, neither experience may be called mainstream in 2016. Of the two, virtual reality tends to capture the headlines as the technology has massive potential in the entertainment and gaming industries. Augmented reality is more likely to be something of a technology that we transparently use as part of our everyday life. Or at least it could be for certain industry sectors once the software is developed.
The concept behind augmented reality is simple: we can project information over an image of the real world. It's a technology behind Google Glass and similar products, such as the smart helmet designs. With many industry pundits incorrectly claiming that Google Glass is a failure, and virtual reality products capturing significant media attention, it might seem that augmented reality has all but been abandoned by the industry. This is not the case – but the media has not picked up on so many stories. We have seen some augmented reality, or AR, products capturing news headlines similar to that of the Microsoft HoloLens, but unfortunately the overall experience is still not there yet. We simply do not yet have sufficient "killer apps" for the technology but instead we have something of a "chicken and egg" scenario. Without the cash to develop the technology, we aren't going to see a killer application. And without a great use for the technology, we aren't going to see the necessary funding.
Nevertheless, there are some interesting uses for the technology. Epson's Moverio BT-300 headset and software has the ability to project a drone's flight path and the view from the camera for the wearer, which appears to be taking inspiration from the many consumer flight simulator games that have been available for years. However, augmented reality seems destined for the corporate markets, where businesses can provide employees with relevant assistance and information without requiring them to use their hands. Examples of this include an engineer needing to work on a machine and having relevant information projected onto a pair of smartglasses requiring no hands to control. Google appear to be reengineering the Glass technology prototype into an industry or enterprise product and it's easy to see why: hands free information has considerable potential. We are yet to see how the software will be developed and improved.
Unfortunately, at the current time the software experience is not up to the task. Controlling the technology is one of the greatest hurdles because voice recognition technology is still not where it need to be, and hand gestures are not always recognized and can require a period of learning on the part of the wearer. Because of this, the best experience for AR technology is where there is no direct interaction on the part of the wearer. One company, Librestream, has developed the software that allows two individuals to cooperate. One individual could be out in the field and another is monitoring from a remote site, but is able to annotate captured images that may be sent back to the field operative. As a concept, this is similar to the drone pilot idea detailed above – it could be a great way for a business to allow employees to work smarter as a team. This example of augmented reality could have considerable use in the medical and healthcare fields, where a less experienced doctor could call up for assistance from a more experienced medical practitioner during an operation.
Another company, Augmenta, is working on smart panel software. This is where a plain panel with QR codes built onto it is converted into a customized set of controls by the headset. These controls can be manipulated by the smartglass wearer, but current technology is not yet precise enough to allow accurate panel control. With the virtual controls being harder to manipulate than the real controls, and QR codes needing to be stenciled onto a blank panel, there only appears to be a small advantage in being able to customize the panel – but considerable cost.
The hardware being used for augmented reality systems is broadly similar to virtual reality hardware. Because of advances in technology, 2016's headsets are smaller, lighter, cooler and offer better battery life compared with headsets from just a couple of years ago. However, the technology still requires considerable computing resource, which means that chips still have to work hard – this generates heat and uses more power. We are seeing development in this respect but many of today's headsets still run uncomfortably warm before the batteries need recharging. New products are being constantly developed and industry partnerships are being formed: it seems logical that augmented reality headsets can share in components developed for the virtual reality market. Unfortunately, the software requirements are different and it seems that until we have a reliable killer app business case for augmented reality, it will follow in virtual reality's wake.