For all the hype about augmented reality, it has yet to really come into its own. We had Pokemon GO, but that was only a small taste of AR, and in a vastly different form than where its potential lies. Google Glass fell flat on its face and is currently relegated to the enterprise world, where it's having a surprisingly good run. Magic Leap is practically vaporware at this point. Microsoft's mythical HoloLens is nearing completion, but is going to be prohibitively expensive at the beginning. There are a few products that offer a taste of AR, usually by linking to a smartphone or computer, but none are anywhere near the level that near-future releases promise to be. Does this sound familiar?
If you guessed that this sounds a lot like VR coming into its own in the modern era, you're absolutely correct. VR had many of the same growing pains, though for different reasons, and is now nearly mainstream. Perhaps AR will go down the same path? For those who aren't quite seeing it yet, let's go over the common ground really quickly. Super-expensive high-end hardware that only developers had gotten a real taste of yet in the beginning? Check. That would be the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. A lite version that offers a small taste of the medium's capabilities via your smartphone? Check. There are countless apps that use mapping, like Pokemon GO, or superimpose virtual elements on your screen. Almost none of them offer real-world interaction, a high degree of realism, or a convincing illusion of presence. A promising product that falls by the wayside? Yep, that would be Cardboard, now succeeded by Daydream, and always hounded by the higher-powered specter of Samsung's Gear VR ecosystem. That same ecosystem, hand in hand with Daydream, is pushing mobile VR toward the mainstream, while consumers wait for prices on PC-based VR to fall.
So, comparisons aside, what is the current state of AR, and what does this all mean for the burgeoning medium? For starters, we have two solutions – Magic Leap and HoloLens – that seem to be on the horizon, promising an insanely high-level experience. They will likely debut with prohibitive expense, among other growing pains. Developers and insiders are reportedly quite happy with progress so far, but consumers are still in the dark. What exactly do consumers have to turn to at this point? For now, the aforementioned smartphone apps and games are about it, aside from the occasional set of expensive AR glasses that are mostly a novelty right now. Untethered, high-powered AR, of the sort that Google Glass was dreamed around, is what will need to happen to bring AR to the mainstream.
Once it's in the mainstream, AR's potential is limitless. Gaming? Yep, by moving your real body through your real environment. Medical and enterprise? Definitely. Art, culture, and entertainment? Oh yeah; just imagine a musical with a convincing digital set that can be changed in seconds, or a digitally overlaid museum gallery at a cheap, if not free, outdoor venue. The possibilities are immense and just about everywhere. You could see traffic information while driving on the freeway to avoid taking a clogged exit. You could plan a garden around the way the plants will look when they blossom, kind of an outdoor version of Lowe's home decor functions with the Tango-enabled Lenovo Phab 2 Pro. You could even get virtual help cleaning and organizing your house by making a plan beforehand and having your AR goggles tell you where the item in your hand should go, down to the millimeter. There are a million other possibilities that developers will likely dream up before users do, in the next few years. The potential is all there, we just have to wait for the technology to catch up.