Revisiting the Digital Multiverse

We want to revisit a post we wrote a few years back that proposed a better framework for discussing Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Mixed Reality (MR) and all the other realities coming soon.  We are now at a very different point on the Hype Curve for these technologies with diminished expectations but slowly growing readiness.

Our basic thesis holds that all these devices need to be viewed on a spectrum looking at both the amount of data being fed into user’s sensory inputs and the extent to which the system blocks out the real world. (The original post had a nifty two dimensional axis, which unfortunately we cannot locate anymore.) At one end of the spectrum is VR which has 100% computer created environments and users are completely cut off from the real world. At the other end of the spectrum are smartphone apps that users can hold up to receive more information about their surroundings.

The benefit of this approach is that it allows us to identify pathways to technical and product realities. VR is fairly straightforward. Here the key barriers to adoption are cost and a lack of content. Both of those problems are solvable and there are a lot of companies working on both.

By contrast, the outlook for AR is much more complicated. The technical requirements for “Full AR” are still a few years out. And by Full AR we are really thinking of something out of a William Gibson novel where people have image projectors implanted into their eyes which contain complete data overlays of the real world. Setting aside the implants, it is easy to see the appeal of a piece of hardware, glasses, which show the wearer useful information. Personally, we would love to have facial recognition software tied to our LinkedIn accounts so that when we meet oh-so-familiar faces on the conference floor, the glasses give us their name and details of our last meeting.  There are about a dozen technical problems to solve before we get to that vision, which is why the industry has gotten disenchanted with AR.

That being said, the clarity around VR and the lack of clarity for “Full AR”, mask a much more positive outlook for products on other parts of our Reality Multiverse Spectrum. Put simply there are many building blocks of AR already in place, and they could soon be providing utility to consumers.

Here are a few examples:

  • Apple AirPods – We usually think about AR in terms of video, but really the spectrum can cover all the senses. (Don’t give up on Smell-O-Vision, it could come someday.) AirPods are more than just earphones, they are tiny computers. They provide a lot of data (music, phone calls, podcasts) without cutting the user off from the real world. We suggest you check out Neil Cybart’s Above Avalon site. He paints a pretty compelling picture for what Apple may have planned for enhancing people’s audio reality.
  • Google’s Visual Search – hold your smartphone up and there is a decent chance Google’s visual search tool can identify it. It is still early days for the technology, but they already cover some things incredibly well. There is a lot of Machine Learning required for this application, but Google is pretty good at that. It is easy to see how this could become incredibly useful in the not too distant future.
  • Pip – we just learned about this app, which launched on the App Store a few weeks ago. It is a super interesting combination of AR and cloud storage. It lets users post data about a geo-tagged photograph or video and then add their own commentary on top of it. This type of application really needs widespread adoption with lots of people posting, but that sort of network effect makes it all the more interesting as a next-generation social media platform.

We think these, and many other examples, create a fairly compelling stepping stone towards this Reality Multiverse. We do not need special-purpose hardware to have data overlays for the real world. The technical realities are such that for a long time most of these overlays will come through the smartphone, but that will still allow us have interesting, useful applications.

We came out of CES this year with an ear full of doubt about AR and VR, but as we noted at the start of this piece, that likely means we are approaching the “Trough of Despair”, which always seems to come shortly before a new technology starts to look truly useful.

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