With several major players in the industry jumping headlong into virtual reality and augmented reality – VR and AR, respectively – 2017 is shaping up to be the year that these technologies truly come into their own. VR and AR are certainly not new ideas or developments. Many attempts have been made to bring these ideas from a state of virtual to a state of reality prior to the last couple of years, with almost all of them resulting in commercial or technological failure. However, from 2013 through 2016 a kind of rebirth occurred for the ideas, devices, and experiences first fully theorized in science fiction – and that occurred across several platforms and in many different forms. Those experiments in VR definitely seem to have jump-started things. The days surrounding CES 2017 saw a renewed wave of advancements thanks to new technology that is pushing the boundaries and 2017 is just getting started.
On the VR front, there is far too much information to cover in any one sitting. VR devices or experiences are known to be in the works from Intel, AMD, Alcatel, Netflix, and many others. However, one big deal is that Google is finally announcing certification requirements for its smartphone-based Daydream View headset. Daydream was announced at Google's I/O 2016, but the requirements were not known until just a few days ago. Currently priced at only $79 from Google, the premium built headset uses built-in lenses and an inserted smartphone – coupled with a remote-style controller – to give users virtual reality experiences curated on the Play Store by Google and other Android developers.
Augmented reality is very different from VR. AR creates an overlay of information, images, animation, or any combination of those – and other software-driven visuals – on top of the user's surroundings or a digital representation of those surroundings in real-time. It can be implemented to assist in a nearly endless range of tasks. In short, AR literally augments the real world for uses. Microsoft's HoloLens platform is among the most futuristic announcements in AR tech. To accomplish its AR experience, HoloLens uses cameras on a headset and digitally inserts the augmentations on the headset's screens. Other companies will also be able to bring their own versions of HoloLens devices to market. Lenovo's as-yet-unnamed VR headset is one of those promised to offer a version of HoloLens augmented reality function – alongside expected built in VR functionality. Lenovo's AR experience will use two displays, each with its own HD OLED panel. The as-yet unnamed device is set to cost closer to $300 than $400, according to Lenovo, and will release sometime in 2017.
Through software and associated services, many or most of the devices announced so far this year – and their technologies – are touted as being usable in a variety of ways. A near-perfect example of just how wide that range of uses can be found in a service announced just in time for CES 2017. Aira is smart glasses or smartphone-based and is designed to assist people with vision-based problems. It functions by linking users to an assistant for things such as help navigating unfamiliar environments. That said, in 2017 VR and AR will work for much more than just to assist people with disabilities, as Aira does. Experiences are being created with the intention of augmenting and enhancing user performance in the workplace or at home accomplishing daily tasks. Advertisers are also expected to delve further into both VR and AR. Given that each concept has had its share of failures, experiences that cross boundaries between everyday life, work, and entertainment are crucial in creating the environment needed to keep any new technology moving forward.
A healthy array of accessories will be another key point in helping to ensure that virtual and augmented technologies have a long support cycle. Having that support cycle in place is a key factor in the survival of the trend. Several accessories have also been announced for these experiences. HYPERSUIT, for example, is an accessory meant to be used with a VR headset to make virtual skydiving and similar activities feel more realistic. No details have been given yet pertaining to consumer availability or price, but the device does show that VR and AR don't necessarily have to be headset-only experiences. It also shows how thoughtfully the technology is being examined by startups and tech giants alike.
Profitability is probably the most important aspect of any product to its manufacturer and is the final piece of the puzzle. Although the experiences of both augmented and virtual reality have now moved beyond gaming, HTC's story provides a prime example of the momentum behind these burgeoning technologies that was built between 2013 and 2016. The company was believed by many experts to be in its death throws as a mobile company when it pooled resources with Valve Software to develop and release its HTC Vive VR system in April of 2016. The system's introductory price of $799 was too high for it to really take off among most mainstream gamers but was well-received by enthusiasts. It also proved that VR can be profitable – and may also have saved HTC.
The expectation for the future is that prices are likely to continue falling as new demand for the experiences arises and components become less expensive. There are many big name technology companies getting on board. In addition to price benefits, High-end VR and AR experiences will begin to become more mobile as component size and weight are reduced. This is particularly true since enterprise and industry will require mobility for use cases involving workers. Google's Cardboard, Glass, and Daydream were just the tip of the iceberg. There are now models in place, showing the huge variety of platforms, services, and hardware that both VR and AR can take. Current limits on software appear to mostly be set by the creativity of content creators and service providers. The amount of software available for the devices – and the quality of that content – will likely increase as demand and competition grow. 2016 was the one final crank of the wheel to open the floodgates for virtual reality and augmented reality to burst through. The flood itself may very well start this year.