n our previous article on virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), we defined and discussed these different technologies. In this article, we explore the applicability of each “reality” in various scenarios to illustrate the likeliest niche for each of them in the next few years.
Often, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality are mistakenly viewed as competing technologies. In truth, there’s no competition. Rather, each reality type has a very specific scope of application, so each type is ideal for different situations: virtual reality is for immersive experiences, augmented reality is for quickly learning about the world around you, and mixed reality is for situations where complex visualization is required or the real world and the virtual world need to interact.
Let’s take look at where each of these different types of reality fits.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Virtual reality has been a popular idea for quite some time, since the 1950s and even earlier. It has the greatest potential utility in environments where an immersive experience is required. An obvious example of this is gaming or entertainment. However, despite the flood of entertainment-related headlines in tech blogs and magazines, virtual reality use cases are not limited to gaming.
Due to its immersive nature, virtual reality is the best option for numerous business applications from architecture to tourism. It is also a fairly expensive option, unless the digital content is created to facilitate easy consumption through virtual reality headsets (e.g., games that can be natively adapted to VR or 360° virtual tours that can be created in minutes).
At present, investment in VR development can be prohibitively costly for many organizations. Even in situations where VR can be beneficial, such as taking an architectural walk-through of a building yet to be built, our firsthand research shows that the value rarely justifies the investment.
As a result, outside of entertainment, the current applicability of VR seems largely limited to one-off novelty projects, but the future of the technology looks bright. As tools such as AutoCAD advance and gain the ability to automatically generate high-quality VR experiences, the cost of VR content generation will be pushed down. With that, virtual reality experiences will eventually become a natural complement to other uses in places where immersive experiences are required, such as simulations, trainings, walk-throughs, and tours. But this future is a few years away. For now, the use of virtual reality will continue to be confined to entertainment, well-funded projects (such as military uses), and one-off projects attempting to capitalize on the “cool factor” of VR.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Unlike VR, augmented reality is ripe for prime-time. In fact, it is already commonly used all around us—take, for example, Pokémon GO, which has 50.2 million active users each month. And while Pokémon GO might have faded from its Summer 2016 peak, in other areas augmented reality is just beginning to rise.
We have seen several AR initiatives appear over the past few years in . AR is also finding its footing in other fields, such as manufacturing. As expected at the early stages, only well-funded companies such as GE, Porsche, and Lockheed Martin, have been able to afford AR on their assembly and supply lines, maintenance teams, and other parts of their businesses. Today, affordable image-recognition technology and ever-cheaper hardware enable even the smallest of companies to access similar tools.
At heart of the rapid rise of augmented reality is the fact that it works with mainstream mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Combined with the low cost of entry for developers and the quantifiable benefits that AR can deliver, augmented-reality applications have been proliferating at a breathtaking pace. Seemingly everyone recognizes the transformative value of AR. Apple is rumored to be launching its headset soon, and even VR-promoting Facebook announced a major augmented reality initiative.
Although AR is already commonplace, its use is projected to explode and enter every corner of our daily lives. Expect to find AR-enabled applications in all places where rapid access to information is useful, which is pretty much everywhere—streets, assembly lines, repair workshops, school. All places where users can just pull out a smartphone, point it an object, and instantly learn about the object or its surroundings by glancing at the screen will eventually become part of the augmented-reality world.
Mixed Reality (MR)
Out of the three realities covered in this article, mixed reality is the most novel and, perhaps, least known.
There are only two key production devices for mixed reality on the market right now: the Microsoft HoloLens and DAQRI. The small market, combined with the expense of the hardware, the novelty of each product, and limited third-party support, increases the adoption costs and limits practical applications.
Compared to the other two technologies, mixed reality is in its infancy. However, more manufacturers are entering the field and creating their own devices and platforms, so MR is set for explosive growth. Microsoft is building mixed reality into the Windows platform, and there are rumors that Apple is taking part in mixed-reality development*. There is a sustainable backbone of technology being built that future mixed reality development can grow on.
The challenge of mixed reality is that, like virtual reality, it is still prohibitively expensive for most applications. It requires specialized hardware, which—due to its limited reach—can be used only in a few places.
Many of the current developments for the HoloLens focus on the “cool factor,” such as the Volvo HoloLens showroom or the Lowes Hologram Experience. However, practical developments are surfacing, such as surgical room visualizations, a maintenance assistance tool from ThyssenKrupp, and the vGIS application designed by Meemim. As businesses and developers see more traction in specific areas, mixed reality will become more mainstream. A few years from now, expect to see mixed-reality devices in many knowledge-intensive areas—from complex manufacturing and maintenance to utility work and planning—where it is critical to have access to complex information and advanced visualizations that can be merged with the physical world.
It is clear that the way we interact with information and the world around us will soon change dramatically. VR, AR, and MR will find acceptance through specific use cases and blockbuster software products. The transition is likely to be akin the smartphone revolution; in just a few short years, the technology will progress from early adoption and novelty to mainstream reception to an inseparable part of our lives. And, just as in the case of smartphones, early adopters can gain an edge over the competition by embracing the technology of the future today.
* The rumors still do not shed light on whether Apple’s product will be more of an augmented-reality or a true mixed-reality headset.