Augmented reality will find its place in the real world
Whenever I begin to think about the future, I can't help but imagine augmented reality (AR) as a part of it. Technologies like AR, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars are, in the long run, inevitable. They are too cool, too useful, and there are too many smart people working on them for each not to eventually play a major role in our society. The specifics, such as apps, brands, and exact timing may vary, but the general concepts must eventually succeed.
Yet, as confident as I am in this augmented future, I am easily in the minority. Most people do not believe we will have functioning spatial computing, or at least not in their lifetime. Here are five real threats I see to augmented reality - and how I think they can be overcome.
1. Social rejection
The risk: As interesting or cool as AR might become, people will never want to wear a computer on their face. It's cumbersome, it's weird, and it's socially awkward.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to recognise that people may be averse to wearing a headset. Could you seriously imagine someone outside of San Francisco with a $1,000 set of tech-enabled glasses on their face? Have you forgotten Google Glass already?
Why it can be overcome: Although many people like to point to Glass as an indicator of AR's eventual failure, I like to look at Glass as an important stepping stone for AR's eventual success. Yes, a lot of people pushed back against Glass in the moment, but in the process, companies like Snap learned a ton. It's no secret that Snap is now working on entering the augmented reality fray, and although they did not include AR, their Spectacle glasses were Snap's first step towards AR. An important feature of Spectacles is that their cameras light up and spin whenever someone is taking a video. This was a direct lesson from the Glass debacle, as a main concern with Glass was that people didn't like being recorded unknowingly.
As Snap, and others, forge their way into AR, the shadow of Glass will be present. They will not release dorky-looking glasses, even if that means only releasing consumer sunglasses for the near future.
Aside from Snap, the other worst-kept secret in AR is that Apple wants to eventually be in the mix as well. As we've witnessed with phones, tablets, and watches, when Apple does something, it's all of a sudden cool. It's Apple's modus operandi to jump in when the technology is a little more developed, so I wouldn't expect them to release anything soon, but when they do, there's a good chance smart glasses won't be dorky any more. And remember, Apple doesn't jump into markets unless they think they have the potential to be huge. I'm sure it is aware that approximately 75pc of adults use some sort of vision correction and about 64pc wear glasses. A transition from Warby Parker glasses to Apple Glasses doesn't seem that far-fetched.
Regardless of Apple or Snap, the reason I have confidence in AR overcoming social stigma is because AR will eventually be extremely useful. Whether or not it sheds its stigma in everyday settings, AR will be used consistently at work and home. Would you care if you looked a little goofy if your work productivity went up 10pc? Would your boss? Imagine your job isn't in an office, but in a manufacturing plant or on a football field, where productivity is especially easy to measure.
2. Poor experience
The risk: The concept of AR is cool and useful, but in action, it always seems lacklustre. Whether it is poor resolution, inaccurate computer vision, or uncomfortable human/computer interactions, the actual experience never lives up to what it is supposed to be.
Murmurs have already begun to swirl around VR. Everyone would love a Ready Player One type metaverse, but the Oculus and the Vive don't really provide this. At the moment, the resolution is too low, on top of the fact that it's not fully immersive and it makes people nauseous. Similar issues are abundant in development edition AR headsets. Although it is understood that this is still early days, maybe what we dream of is still a technological wave away.
Why it can be overcome: Although the past is admittedly not a guarantor of the future, this seems to be a mistake commonly made with new technologies. When considering a new piece of tech, it is easy to look at it in its current form and discount it for the future. Let's look at the e-reader as an exhibit.
Although the Kindle became the first e-reader to experience mass market success, Amazon did not invent the idea of digital books. Companies and entrepreneurs had been building e-reader prototypes since 1999. But before the Kindle, the experience was very clunky. You had to plug the device into a computer to download a book and even then, there were barely any digital books available. This led Barnes and Noble to write off the e-reader as a category altogether. They figured the experience sucked, so people would just stick with physical books - they seem to work just fine. What Jeff Bezos realised was that at a fast-enough rate of technological development, the e-reader experience could change completely in a matter of years. In 2007, just eight years later, Amazon released the Kindle and sold out inventory almost immediately.
Currently, there are some cool things you can do in augmented reality, but mostly, the experience is still disappointing… and at the end of the day, that is okay. The experience will improve rapidly. It is not the AR of today that will be changing the world, but the AR of 10 years from now. As we just passed the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone, I think we all know how much things can change in 10 years.
3. Miniaturisation Issues
The risk: It's obvious that everyone wants a fully functioning augmented reality headset at the size of normal eyeglasses, but it's actually much harder to make than people realise. Despite the best efforts of top firms, the components can't be made small enough in this short a timeframe.
There are tons of trade-offs headset-makers have to consider when attempting to miniaturise their product. Field of view (FOV), computer vision, battery, the list goes on. All of these issues aren't going to be fixed overnight. On top of that, there is even some debate whether or not it is physically possible to create a FOV of greater than 90 degrees in an eyeglasses-sized headset.
Why it can be overcome: This will be no easy challenge, but I do believe it will eventually be solved. Many people like to point to Moore's Law as the answer here, and although it may be a factor in helping to miniaturise AR, it is not the only reason.
Augmented reality is a race that Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have all entered. They each understand that this has the potential to be the next smartphone and none want to miss out. Due to these competitive pressures, each has an intense desire to not only build AR, but to build it quickly. Coincidentally, doing this should have a symbiotic relationship with many of the other projects they already have going on. As they try to miniaturise components for AR, they will be complementing their existing ventures. The chips that will power AR headsets will come from the chips that power current smartphones. The computer vision technology embedded in glasses will be the same that is embedded in their self-driving cars.
And if that's not enough to convince you, check out Microsoft's latest prototype.
4. Digital fatigue
The risk: Spatial computing… melding of digital and physical worlds… it's simply too much. We love our television sets, we love our iPhones, but sometimes it's nice to just unplug from the world. Having constant virtual information is simply exhausting.
It's a fairly popular belief already that technology is destroying our society. In a 2016 article written for Time, Carol Becker, dean of Columbia University, said: "As a result of our 'always-on' ethos, we have neither time nor space within which to lose ourselves in reflection." Bringing the digital world into the real world only exacerbates that issue. Plus, if you haven't seen the video, Hyper-Reality looks like it's way too much.
Why it can be overcome: Unavoidably, augmented reality will have both benefits and unfortunate side-effects. This is no different than any technology that has preceded AR. For example, email immensely improved workplace communication and productivity, but simultaneously created an "always available" work culture that is difficult to escape. The iPhone is one of the most beloved devices ever created, and yet its popularity is potentially contributing to a decrease in face-to-face social skills.
It is true, augmented reality could increase the time we spend interacting with digital elements. This could undoubtedly be a negative consequence, but I also believe there is an even stronger potential upside. Although we may spend more time with the virtual world, the time we spend should become more efficient and more connected to the real world. Currently, we are attached to our screens. In order to access all of the wonderful content available through our smart phones, we need to disengage from the real world and stare down. On a literal note this can lead to dangerous situations, but more importantly, it forces us to constantly disconnect from what is around us. What augmented reality offers is the ability to be a part of the real world while still having access to the digital one. This means the ability to simultaneously walk down the street, check an urgent text, and follow map directions whilst maintaining a real world conversation with your friend.
And as far as overload goes, it's just something developers need to be conscious of. Hyper-Reality is too much, and there will be economic temptation to overload AR with advertisements. The right people need to set controls, and allow users to manage content. So far, we have only wanted more digital powers in our lives and with the next generations growing up with even more technology, I don't see this trend stopping.
5. Lack of use cases
The risk: While considered "cool" and fun for gaming, AR never develops a truly useful purpose. Techies and gamers may find it interesting, but the everyday consumer never sees the need to purchase.
Just look at AR's first swing at mainstream with Google Glass. Despite the backing of one of tech's big five, Glass died a swift death. People were intrigued, but no one could find a reason Glass was worth paying over $1,000. Even today, consider the struggles of virtual reality. Despite the millions of dollars invested in VR, only hardcore gamers are actually buying headsets.
Why it can be overcome: This is my lowest-level threat for a few reasons. First of all, true AR is inherently useful. Google Glass, despite the hype, wasn't true AR. It projected digital elements into your field of vision, but those elements had no understanding of the real world. Without computer vision or additional intelligence, it was essentially an iPhone on your face, but without easy and intuitive ways to interact with it. The next generation of AR that Microsoft and Magic Leap are working on will do much more than gaming or entertainment. Already Meta is working on replacing the desktop, while Daqri claims that augmented reality can increase manufacturing productivity by 30pc.
Even if both of these projects fail, one thing we've repeatedly seen to be true is that people are fairly bad at predicting what new technology will be used for. Remember that most people thought the average consumer would have no use for a personal computer. More recently, the first iPhone touted its music-playing and internet browser capabilities as transformative. Few predicted the impending dominance of GroupMe, Snapchat and Uber that the iPhone enabled.
What's important to note is that we're still at V1s for all the current headsets available. The clunky, glitchy, 35-degree FOV headsets of today may not be particularly useful, but as we move on to V2 or V3, the use cases for bringing digital elements into the real world will be endless.
AR faces a tough road. Nothing will happen overnight and there's still a chance AR will fail, but when you break it down into individual threats, you can see that most are capable of being overcome.
Matthew Busel is the author of Game Changer: How Augmented Reality Will Transform the World of Sports