Everyone likes to talk about Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) as some frontier technology that is going to ‘disrupt’ or even ‘revolutionize’ the technology landscape. Marketing teams invoke AR/VR in quasi-mystical ways – “the future”, with lots of hand waving. And they almost always get linked together as AR/VR like they were one thing. In fact, this has become a tell. If we see a presentation lump the two together as some future use case, we tend to automatically discount the rest of the pitch.
In reality, AR and VR are very different. And their future is not tied together. This matters because for either to become commercially interesting they need to answer to some important questions. And those questions are similar but the answers will be very different.
Why do we say they are so different? Under the hood, the electronics are very similar. VR is a set of goggles which require very advanced, highly miniaturized, high-density displays. AR will likely be a set of goggles which require very advanced, highly miniaturized, high-density displays. But that is engineering-led thinking. And no offense to the engineers here, something that many believe will disrupt technology needs to be analyzed from the perspective of user-led thinking. And here AR and VR are totally unrelated.
VR is completely immersive, VR goggles block out all outside light sources. This means users cannot move, for risk of running into walls or coffee tables. VR is meant for consuming content – videos, games, training materials. True, users could get omni-directional treadmills, but they will still remain in one room. VR does not need to be portable which greatly simplifies things like power requirements and network connections. For example, VR does not need 5G, home Wi-Fi or even wired ethernet will work much better.
By contrast, AR is meant to be portable. The whole point is to layer AR data over the real world. This makes the electronics much more challenging. Power is going to be very challenging, imagine carrying a battery back on your belt, with a wired connection to the AR glasses. And here 5G becomes meaningful especially given the requirement for very low data latency (necessary to reduce image blur and nausea-inducing vertigo).
So the electronics are similar at a high level, but even at this engineering level there are already significant differences.
There are important differences in content. VR data can, and will likely be, provided by a single source – the video or game maker. By contrast, AR is going to require integration of massive data layers. The proverbial example of using AR goggles to find a nearby restaurant requires integration of local food guides, maps and current position of the user. True, this exists today online, but the move to something as personalized as AR will likely force a reorganization of those existing relationships. And that is to say nothing of a major new category of privacy concerns – AR will be able to tell the data lords much more about what we are doing and who we are doing it with.
Most importantly, the impact these devices will have on consumer behavior are going to be completely different. VR may change the way we consume content, and will require new ways to capture that content, but is not going to meaningfully change the way we interact as people. By contrast, AR has the potential to remake human interactions as much as smartphones have, which is to say by a very large degree. Done well, AR means immediate connection to all sorts of data – an unnoticed friend at the other side of the park, a restaurant you had not realized was so close, some event only a block away. We cannot really predict these, just like no one could have predicted Uber prior to the launch of the iPhone.
When it comes to basic notions of user interface and user experience AR and VR are completely unalike. To boil this down, we think it is important to look at all the devices and machines we regularly use, and compare them in two ways – how portable is the device and how personal is it to us. Trains and taxis are not personal at all, shared by many, but they are mobile. Smartphones are extremely personal, you only share your passcode with people very close to you. Laptops are somewhere in the middle, somewhat portable and fairly personal to the owner, but easier to share. VR goggles sit towards the bottom, somewhat personal and not all that mobile. By contrast, AR goggles will likely be incredibly personal, but not quite as mobile as our phones.
Think about the diversity of user interface models for these devices, and we start to get to the heart of how different AR and VR will need to be.
When it comes down to it, the real question at the heart of VR and AR, the only question that really matters is who will control the software, the operating system (OS) that powers them. From this viewpoint, the answer for VR is likely straightforward – these will be tied to the game consoles and PCs that provide the content. On the other hand, the answer for AR is still very much up in the air. Apple, Google and Meta/Facebook would very much like it to be the OS provider, but that is by no means a foregone conclusion. Solving the many UI and OS problems for AR are going to be challenging, and areas that are still greatly open to competition.