AV technology has brought to life incredible images and soundscapes, but perhaps nothing so far has had the impact that augmented reality (AR) and virtual (VR) will achieve. While a looming video wall or precisely zoned audio system can enhance the way someone observes their surroundings, augmented and virtual reality change those surroundings entirely. What is the potential impact and what separates the two? Those questions are becoming tougher to answer, but more intriguing as well.
Although AR and VR may operate in similar capacities, the experience they deliver is wholly different. There's a third reality-altering technology, too, combining elements of AR and VR to create something just as novel. Called mixed reality, or MR, it's already a compelling tool for educators and trainers.
As for AR and VR, both are promising technologies for consumers and the commercial sector. Here's what they can do:
1. Augmented reality - AR has been around longer than most would suspect, and the first example of the technology dates back to 1968. Of course, that version of AR was downright primitive, capable of only displaying simple wireframe graphics. AR has come a long way since then.
AR works by overlaying virtual elements on actual reality. Where VR transports the user to an entirely different environment, AR adds elements to the existing environment. AR technology doesn't require a headset that screens out the user's surroundings. AR can be delivered using a smartphone, a headset with a transparent lens or even a pair of glasses. Microsoft Hololens and Google Glass are two primary examples of AR hardware, and Pokemon Go is a compelling example of how AR can be deployed on a smartphone.
AR is not as immersive as VR, as you will see below, but it does allow the user to keep track of their actual surroundings, so it can be used around the home and in public.
2. Virtual reality - VR has been around, depending on your definition, for years, decades or even longer. It's long been difficult to define exactly what VR is, because that requires a definition of what an alternative reality would look like. Now, with modern VR technologies like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Playstation VR, the definition is easier to grasp.
VR is the process of substituting actual reality with an entirely different environment. This environment is artificial and replaces the user's actual surroundings. In other words, don't expect to see your desk or sofa once the VR headset is put on. VR is designed to fully immerse the user into another environment, and it is usually delivered using a headset that blocks out the outside world. Such headsets can be connected to a PC, like the Vive or Rift, or they can be used with a smartphone instead, like the Google Cardboard, Google Daydream or Samsung Gear. In the near future, there will be mobile VR systems that don't require either a PC or a smartphone.
PC-connected VR systems are much more powerful and can deliver greater visual fidelity and more advanced software. However, these systems require a powerful PC and they cost several hundred dollars, so they represent a significant investment. But like with any technology, eventually the cost will come down and the value will go up.
The future applications of AR and VR
In some ways, the future is already here. Both AR and VR have been adopted by consumers and by businesses, and the applications are practically endless. An obvious one is gaming, which is what the Vive, Rift and Playstation VR are focused on. This is only the beginning, though, as both AR and VR have the potential to revolutionize the way people are taught, make things and engage with brands. Beyond gaming, this is what AR and VR offer:
1. Education - Education may soon overtake gaming as the leading market for VR. Imagine putting on a headset and finding yourself surrounded by dinosaurs, inside a space station on sitting front row at the Coliseum. Take a tour through history, shrink yourself down to the size of bacteria, or watch a classic piece of literature come to life by putting you in the scene. Museum exhibits could be paired with a device so that they play animation or video on the screen when in range.
2. Advertising and retail - AR is best suited for marketing and retail potential, as users can wear or carry their AR device with them at all times. A set of AR glasses could be used to bring up specials or sales when the device is in view of a retail business, a restaurant or a department store. AR can bring up customer reviews for quick reference, business hours or contact information if needed. Once in store, AR could be used to deliver coupons, direct people around the building or allow people to order something that is out of stock.
Marketers will have to get a little more creative with VR, but the potential is there, too. For example, IKEA has put together a virtual kitchen where people can walk around and check out products in action. Users can cycle through product designs and find one that best fits their preferences.
3. Real estate - Real estate companies can develop VR-enabled versions of available properties, allowing would-be home buyers or renters a chance to examine the property remotely, and even add virtual furniture to the home to see what it would look like once filled up.
4. Healthcare - Future physicians require exhaustive training before they can put their knowledge to work, and both VR and AR systems can help provide that knowledge. With VR, surgeons are placed in the operating room and can review a huge array of treatment scenarios. With AR, surgeons can operate on special dummies with embedded AR tags. These tags can point out structures in the body or instruct the surgeon where to make an incision.
5. Manufacturing and quality assurance - AR is already a primary technology for many manufacturing facilities. In these facilities, AR devices can provide assembly instructions without the need for paper and alert quality assurance personnel as to what requires inspection. Greater productivity can be achieved as a result.
Mixed reality learning
AR and VR clearly have a lot to offer to educators, but mixed reality may be the most effective teaching tool of the three.
What is MR? It's best thought of as a hybrid between AR and VR. MR is much like AR, in that virtual items are represented in the real world. Unlike AR, though, MR anchors virtual objects to real world objects. So, for example, MR could use a student's desk as a platform, onto which virtual objects can be placed on top of it. What MR takes from VR is interactivity, as these virtual objects can be picked up, moved around and manipulated in a host of other ways.
Although AR and VR are frequent topics of discussion and analysis among technophiles, many experts see MR as the most applicable form of reality bending. The most compelling example of this is in education.
Mixed reality learning requires a few technologies to function, but they are compact and intuitive for people to use. A special display, a set of glasses, a stylus for interacting and software that's all it takes to deliver an interesting, useful MR experience. A single classroom could accommodate a dozen or more of these MR stations.
What can MR do for students? The possibilities are truly endless, and we're only beginning to tap its potential. Take a basic biology lesson, for example. This is what it might look like in MR:
- The student sits in front of the MR display, puts on their glasses, picks up the stylus and starts the lesson.
- The lesson is about human anatomy. The MR display and glasses work together to project a virtual image onto the student's desk. This image could be of anything, but for this lesson, it's an image of a human heart.
- The student uses their stylus to spin the heart around and examine it from every angle. No matter how the student angles the object it looks exactly like it should from that angle. Perhaps the heart is animated and beats, so the student can see, with near-lifelike visual fidelity, how the heart and nearby anatomical structures operate with every beat.
That is exciting enough, but it's only one example. MR can be used to simulate physics, explore the universe, learn about climate patterns, try out science experiments without making a mess or investing in expensive equipment, learn artistic concepts in a 3D environment and much more. As more developers enter the MR market, it™s likely that future students will have access to an entirely new way of learning, one that is more engaging and relevant for the workforce they will enter.
As the technology improves for AR, VR and even MR, better control options (such as haptic touch feedback) and smarter applications will likely swarm the market. They are already powerful educational, marketing and productivity tools, but they are slated to be even more as this technology continues to evolve.