Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced us to the holodeck. This was the ultimate augmented reality where Captain Piccard or other Starfleet members could seamlessly interact with virtual characters, locations and activities without specialized visual gear or computing hardware. The holodeck is the classic embodiment of science fiction technology. We may be nowhere near the amazing technology that powered the holodeck, but we are definitely taking steps, albeit baby steps, in that direction.
Today, the field of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is gaining steam with a multitude of companies designing and developing products to take us to the next level. This has been fueled by advances in technology such as increased hardware processing power, better software algorithms and displays that are sharper, lighter and more power efficient, coupled with more affordable technology. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg stated that VR is “the next major computing and communication platform."1According to a Digi-Capital report, VR and AR combined will generate $150 billion in revenue by 2020. $120 billion will come from the sale of AR devices and services such as hardware, commerce, data, voice services, film and TV, with the other $30 billion from VR hardware devices and gaming.2
It is difficult to accurately pinpoint when and where the concept of VR and AR originated. In 1945, Vannevar Bush, a Manhattan Project engineer, “outlined his vision for a head-mounted camera attached to ‘a pair of ordinary glasses’ that would record comments, photographs, and data from scientific experiments…”3 Fast-forward to 1965, when Ivan Sutherland wrote his seminal essay on AR4 and 1968, when he co-developed the first AR head-mounted display called the “Sword of Damocles” at Harvard University.5
VR and AR consist of sophisticated software and hardware. Hardware includes processors, a wide array of sensors and high resolution displays or micro-projectors to generate a realistic simulation.
Many companies either exited or stayed out of the initial VR/AR push several years ago following the ill-fated Google Glass launch. That product’s limited functionality, as well as privacy and social implications limited consumer interest and ultimately caused Google to shut down Glass. However, the tide seems to have turned. Today there is a greater push to use VR/AR as a communications platform – the next step in the evolution of social media. People are apt to stay longer while socializing in a VR environment, delivering a captive audience that companies can monetize by serving directed ads and content. This partially explains Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus (a manufacturer of VR headsets) in 2013 for $2 billion, or Google’s $542 million investment in Magic Leap in October 2014. Imagine a fully immersive, VR Facebook world where “friends” can spend hours virtually interacting.
CCS Insights projects that the growth in VR and AR devices will increase from 2.5M in 2015 to 24M in 20188– an astonishing 860% increase in three years. The growth in device sales will correlate to growth in the supply of core elements needed to enable the VR/AR environment – newer software algorithms and applications, and hardware such as specialized chips, displays, sensors, components and small form factor power systems. Companies such as Cypress Semiconductor, Intel, Infineon and Qualcomm with their SnapDragon 820 chipsets and others are likely to enjoy the benefits of this growth. Startups with expertise in hardware, software, peripheral products and services are making their mark in this potentially lucrative field.
Numerous companies, both established and in startup mode, are venturing into this space.
As noted by Stanford assistant professor Gordon Wetztein, applications for AR “could be really seamlessly integrated into everyday tasks: communicating, working, information visualization, gaming…"12 Applications can include commercial, military, navigation, tourism/sightseeing, medical, educational, training, recreational, gaming and others.
There are currently a variety of technological and human-related issues that limit the mass appeal of VR and AR systems as well as what these systems can render. These issues need to be resolved before these systems can become mainstream and ubiquitous.
In a recent study on rats conducted by researcher Mayank Mehta at UCLA18, they recorded the rat’s brain activity as the rats traversed a 2-D virtual maze while on a small treadmill. In animals, the hippocampus region of the brain is involved in mapping one’s location in space along with other functions. Neurons with GPS-type capability are formed as an animal moves through its physical environment, which produces a mental map of the environment. Indicators such as sound, smell, visual, distance, environment and others are used to form this mental map. By placing the rats in a virtual environment, the study found that “60 percent of the neurons simply ‘shut down"19 and did not form the standard mental map of the environment. A possible reason is the lack of other indicators which are not present in a virtual environment.
Whether long-term use of VR affects the human brain similarly remains undetermined at this time. More research is needed.
VR and AR devices have had their fair share of hype when every year seemed to be their breakout year. There is definitely more excitement today than before, however, due to the major releases from major players in this field. There will definitely be a variety of products available but the question that remains is whether the products will live up to the hype. Will there be sufficient applications and uses for these virtual products outside of niche areas, and will the price point and ease of use allow them to become mainstream in 2016? It appears that we are definitely moving in that direction. VR/AR offer numerous benefits from recreational to commercial to medical, but there are hazards (both known and unknown) that OEMs need to remain cognizant about and address them in the design of their products.
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1 Moon, Mariella. (July 1, 2015). “Zuckerberg reveals Facebook AI, VR and Internet.org Plans.” Engadget. Accessed December 2015. http://www.engadget.com/2015/07/01/zuckerberg-facebook-qna/
2 (April 2015). “Augmented/Virtual Reality to hit $150 billion disrupting mobile by 2020.” Digi-Capital. Accessed December 2015. http://www.digi-capital.com/news/2015/04/augmentedvirtual-reality-to-hit-150-billion-disrupting-mobile-by-2020/
3 Kofman, Ava. (June 9, 2015). “Dueling Realities.” The Atlantic. Accessed December 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/dueling-realities/395126/
4 Sterling, Bruce. (September 20, 2009). “Augmented Reality: ‘The Ultimate Display’ by Ivan Sutherland, 1965.” Wired. Accessed December 2015. http://www.wired.com/2009/09/augmented-reality-the-ultimate-display-by-ivan-sutherland-1965/
6 Azuma, Ronald, T. (August 1997). “A Survey of Augmented Reality.” In Presence:Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 6, 4 (August 1997), 355-385. Accessed December 2015. http://www.cs.unc.edu/~azuma/ARpresence.pdf
7 Perdue, Tim. “Applications of Augmented Reality.” AboutTech. Accessed January 2016. http://newtech.about.com/od/softwaredevelopment/a/Applications-Of-Augmented-Reality.htm
8 “Augmented and Virtual Reality Devices to Become a $4 Billion-Plus Business in Three Years.” CCS Insights. Accessed December 2015. http://www.ccsinsight.com/press/company-news/2251-augmented-and-virtual-reality-devices-to-become-a-4-billion-plus-business-in-three-years
9 Markoff, John. (July 14, 2014). “Real-life Illness in a Virtual World.” New York Times. Accessed December 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/15/science/taking-real-life-sickness-out-of-virtual-reality.html?_r=2
10 Metz, Rachel. (January 19, 2016). “Augmented Reality Study Projects Life-Sized People into Other Rooms.” MIT Technology Review. Accessed January 2016. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/545466/augmented-reality-study-projects-life-sized-people-into-other-rooms/?utm_campaign=newsletters&utm_source=newsletter-weekly-mobile&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20160125
11 Oscillada, John, Marco (March 19, 2015). “ List of All Virtual Reality Headsets under Development.” VR Times. Accessed January 2016. http://www.virtualrealitytimes.com/2015/03/19/list-of-all-virtual-reality-headsets-under-development/
12 Ibid 3
13 Carson, Eric. (April 8, 2015). “10 ways virtual reality is revolutionizing medicine and healthcare.” TechRepublic. Accessed January 2016. http://www.techrepublic.com/article/10-ways-virtual-reality-is-revolutionizing-medicine-and-healthcare/
14 Stein, Joel. (August 27, 2015). “Inside the Box.” Time Magazine, page 43. Accessed December 2015.
15 Wang, Xianguy. (October 2012). “Augmented Reality: A new way of augmented learning.” eLearn Magazine. Accessed January 2016. http://elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=2380717
16 Oscillada, John, Marco. (May 24, 2015). “Comparison Chart of FOV (Field of View) of VR Headsets.” VRTimes. Accessed January 2016. http://www.virtualrealitytimes.com/2015/05/24/chart-fov-field-of-view-vr-headsets/
17 Samsung Disclaimer - http://www.bestbuy.com/site/electronics/disclaimer/pcmcat364300050002.c?id=pcmcat364300050002
18 Lewis, Tanya. (December 5, 2014). “Virtual Reality Affects Brain’s ‘GPS Cells’.” Live Science. Accessed January 2016. http://www.livescience.com/49021-virtual-reality-brain-maps.html
19 Lewis, Tanya (February 3, 2015). “Samsung Gear VR: Virtual Reality Tech May Have Nasty Side Effects.” Live Science. Accessed January 2016. http://www.livescience.com/49669-virtual-reality-health-effects.html