Market revenues for virtual reality in 2016 were $2.5 billion while those for augmented reality were a lesser $1.5 billion. By 2021, those numbers will grow significantly—and swap places. Augmented reality is projected as the big winner of the two, with VR revenue at $25.5 billion and AR revenue at $83.5 billion. This is astronomical growth for augmented reality in a mere five years.
Differences of the Realities
Augmented, virtual and mixed reality are connected primarily in name, at least for now. These technologies, while related, are not in competition with each other. Augmented reality is truly that—reality, augmented. AR is the overlaying of data onto a smart display such as glasses, a helmet or a visor. When looking through the display, a viewer sees their natural environment along with data relevant to their surroundings or situation on the display. In the construction industry for example, a general contractor would benefit from AR by wearing smart glasses or other Head Up Display to view a graded development. Looking through the smart glasses at a particular lot or proposed community area, the contractor can also see data about limestone, trees or topography while moving about the development.
Virtual reality is a simulated experience which replicates or creates a multitude of environments, including real ones. Using a Head Mounted Display, a person is fully immersed into a multisensory, high-definition, 3D experience. In a virtual reality scenario, a general contractor can wear an immersive headset with up-to-date, vibrant content delivered to him as he virtually walks through a job site, performing inspections during various phases of construction. For example, the contractor can check on work started, foundations poured, lots surveyed or the location of backhoes. While the contractor does not need to be onsite using virtual reality, current data delivered to the VR headset is required for accuracy.
Mixed reality is the inevitable blending of augmented reality and virtual reality. Using smart glasses or Head Up Display, mixed reality overlays virtual content onto a real-world environment. In a mixed reality experience, a general contractor and site manager can collaborate on the development’s community swimming pool. Each wearing smart glasses, they can meet at the construction site and view identical holographic images to discuss pool options, materials and specifications. Already a collaborative technology, mixed reality has another ace up its sleeve. Using holoportation, the contractor and site manager can have that same meeting from different cities—or even countries.
Versatile Virtual Reality
Healthcare is an undeniable arena for virtual reality. Enterprise and the public sector will snare a handsome share of the realities market by 2025 and it’s no surprise that healthcare tops the list. Because of its fully immersive approach, VR is ideal for many applications in healthcare.
Treatment for anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For the person suffering from mental health disorders, VR provides a physically safe environment for treatment under the care of a therapist or clinician. Depending on the treatment plan, a person experiencing social anxiety may start therapy by interacting with just one or two people in VR immersion. Virtual reality therapy can be adjusted to meet a person’s progress. Full immersion, or exposure treatment, gives a person an opportunity to overcome these debilitating issues at their own pace and comfort level. Virtual reality exposure therapy conducted on active duty combatants with post-traumatic stress disorder showed compelling evidence of improvement, making VR treatment an option in both healthcare and military. Therapy using virtual reality can be an effective tool in treating anxiety, agoraphobia, fear of flying and so much more.
Physical rehabilitation. Patients undergoing rehabilitation after injury or surgery can benefit in multiple ways. Virtual reality is being used successfully in trials for relief from pain, or perhaps distraction from pain. Tolerance to pain has been shown to increase in patients while immersed in a virtual reality multisensory experience. In addition, VR can help patients undergoing physical rehabilitation as they imagine themselves performing slow, simple movements while immersed. Virtual reality immersion coupled with the patient’s own visualization is believed to create brain patterns closer to actual motor skills than visualization alone. This gives the patient a huge advantage in healing. The benefit to the provider? Any patient success increases the success of the provider and promotes the viability of virtual reality as a serious contender in enterprise, possibly starting a chain reaction of success.
Education. Virtual reality has a successful track record in experiential learning. NASA uses virtual reality in its Mars 2030 program as well as spacewalk training for astronauts. Wouldn’t it be great to take it to the classrooms of the world? Students retain more information when they are able to do, see and interact while learning. Full immersion in a 3D virtual environment can turn a textbook chapter into a compelling experience. Being fully immersed in a roaring crowd in Washington, DC and hearing Martin Luther King Jr. declare “I have a dream” could have a deeply profound effect on a student. Likewise, excavating the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, walking among China’s Terracotta Warriors or exploring marine life beneath the ocean’s surface would be more meaningful and have greater impact.
The Advantages of Augmented Reality
With a bit of investment, augmented reality is an easy to apply yet valuable solution for many industries. Smart glasses and Head Up Displays are more readily available to enterprise. Expect to see more skilled workers of all levels incorporating AR and smart glasses into their work, viewing data displayed on their lenses, their hands left free to work.
Automotive. The automotive industry is constantly evolving thanks to healthy competition and consumer need. Augmented reality has barely scratched the surface in the automotive industry, but car makers are quickly making up for lost time. German automotive manufacturer Continental AG is one of many companies investing in augmented reality car windshields. Technically a Head Up Display, the driver need not wear glasses, as the windshield is the display. AR can help drivers with navigation, vehicle speed, weather, tire pressure and obstacles in the driver’s path. AR can even be used to place virtual street signs on the display when they are otherwise difficult to see. No longer having to reach for a smartphone for alternate routes to bottlenecked traffic ahead, the driver can focus on the task at hand and drive safely.
Automotive workers on the assembly line benefit from augmented reality as well. With detailed instructions displayed on smart glasses, workers can be more productive and accurate during auto assembly. If assistance is required, a supervisor can view the problem through smart glasses and provide the required help. This allows for technical assistance with little downtime. The worker’s skills and productivity are likely to increase, leading to an improved workplace. That’s a tremendous advantage for the auto maker.
Healthcare. Healthcare can always benefit from technological advancements—there’s no cap on quality. Imagine a surgeon with smart glasses having data such as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and anesthesia without once looking up from his patient. Or a dermatologist examining a dubious mole on a patient while getting definitive information on size, texture, color and the likelihood of being benign. Almost nothing is as medically important as a mother delivering a baby, where two lives are in the hands of a doctor’s care. An OB/GYN in the delivery room, knowing the mother’s vitals and stress on the baby, can be alerted to potential complications, allowing the doctor to take preemptive measures and deliver a healthy baby.
The Might of Mixed Reality
Mixed reality is an emerging technology with enormous potential. With features of both augmented reality and virtual reality, mixed reality is a possible upset to standalone AR and VR in the future. Combining advanced hardware, sensors and breakthrough optics allows for holographic images and vibrant, virtual content to be displayed over a natural environment.
Mixed reality will have practical applications in numerous industries, including infrastructure and construction. In a mixed reality experience, designers, engineers and construction teams all benefit. From design phase to inspection, collaboration is critical among integrated teams. Using holographic images, teams from multiple locations can collaborate on designs, renovation projects or new construction by simultaneously viewing and manipulating 3D replicas of plans, scaled as needed. Stakeholders can weigh options for expansion projects or the implications of changes to existing structures. With the ability to ‘walk-through’ a site at any time, engineers are able to correct potential flaws. Inspectors can also walk-through on an as-needed basis, ensuring the build is in compliance.
Healthcare. With healthcare still in mind, medical training is just one of many areas that will benefit from MR. Mixed reality has the potential to reinvent the learning environment. Medical students can learn more comprehensively in a mixed reality environment. Medical students wearing smart glasses can learn to palpate, biopsy or perform a spinal tap on their holographic patient during medical training. The ‘patient’ can be created from a data source or may be a holographic image of an actual person. In a non-training scenario, an oncologist removing a tumor can view a holographic image of the exact tumor for removal that’s projected onto the patient during surgery, providing precision guidance in removing the tissue. This is an immense advantage during surgery on hard to reach areas, benefitting both doctor and patient.
There is no shortage of VR, AR and MR startups ready to step up. They have a few hurdles to jump. These realities have their share of stops and starts.
1. Development kits. While dev kits are available, they are cost prohibitive for the independent developer. Meta 2, the highly anticipated augmented reality set, has a software development kit cost of over $900—and it hasn’t even been released. Microsoft’s HoloLens kit is a $3,000 tough pill to swallow. When dev kits are affordable and readily available to independent developers, everyone wins. AR, VR and MR need an open development culture to encourage a healthy competition for quality content, safety nets and privacy features.
2. Headsets. Reality experiences require robust processing power, high-definition graphics, anchoring, sensors, tracking, depth measurement and battery life. Sophisticated equipment is a must and will be more viable when produced together in a non-bulky, practical headset or smart display. Business use will require headsets that are powerful, reliable, comfortable, integrate seamlessly and allow for complete hands-free operation.
3. Privacy. Privacy is an important issue with any emerging technology. From intellectual property to patient confidentiality, privacy must be ensured. It may or may not be solved in the boardrooms. A forward-thinking developer may be the one who devises the solution. That developer needs 1 and 2 to happen to understand exactly how to make these realities secure.
4. Cost. Virtual, augmented and mixed reality are not exactly in the everyday budget. By allowing for easier development, producing advanced equipment and ensuring privacy (1, 2 and 3), interest in these technologies will go from curious to must-have.
Getting Down to Business
It’s important to give credit where credit is due. Thanks to consumer-centric augmented reality apps, filters and big name virtual reality systems, these technologies have shown us their potential—and they’ve barely scratched the surface of possibilities. Their true power lies in business and industry, where their large scale benefits will apply to companies and customers, doctors and patients and automotive manufacturers and drivers. As reality hurdles are removed one by one, expect rapid acceleration in the development of these truly remarkable technologies.