AR Leapfrogs VR

Ya got trouble, folks, right here in virtual reality. It begins with a lowercase “i,” and that rhymes with “my,” and that means iPhone!

Ten years after the quintessential smartphone went on sale and lifted personal computing from desk to palm, a funny thing happened to virtual reality. While VR enthusiasts, mainly gamers, were blindfolded in head mounts, augmented reality (AR) quietly encroached on everything that mattered.

The difference between AR and VR is that AR overlays the world as it exists; VR replaces it. AR superimposes itself visually as in schematics appearing over an engine or audibly as in a GPS navigator announcing “turn left.” VR, on the other hand, pulls the wool over your eyes with artificial sights and sounds that effectively isolate you from your environment.

Psychologically, VR is a tough sell. With eyes and ears covered, users are required to put VR platform requirements ahead of their own senses — organs they rely on to make them feel safe and in control. The nausea that sometimes accompanies VR immersion can be the least of users’ feelings of discomfort.

With AR, users are fully aware of their surroundings. Sure, a Pokémon Go figure may appear on screen while you peer at your camera phone’s live view, but it’s not as startling as an actual bully sneaking up on you while VR has hijacked your senses.

There’s a revealing scene in the last season of HBO’s Silicon Valley. Excited by what he saw when he “walked up” to a young woman in a virtual bar, Pied Piper founder Richard (Thomas Middleditch) shares his enthusiasm with venture capitalist Monica (Amanda Crew). Monica isn’t as enamored of the technology. She responds, “Yeah, well, um, look, the demo is amazing — when you run it on a $10,000 rig. But the future of VR is mobile, and there’s no phone on earth that could handle that demo, let alone the full-bloated platform.”

AR overlays the world as it exists, while VR pulls the wool over your eyes.

Once dazzled by VR hype, my eyes were opened during a recent trip to Tuscany. Lunching at a hillside vineyard, I was handed a menu printed in Italian. A dining mate pulled up Google Translate on her iPhone, pointed it at the menu, and displayed the English translation. (See photo above.) This was an app, I realized, that didn’t purport to transport you to alien lands but assisted you in the world you actually occupied.

It’s no surprise that by the end of 2019, eMarketer projects AR users will top 54.4 million, accounting for 16.4 percent of the U.S. population, or nearly one in five internet users. “Meanwhile, VR has been slower to catch on in the U.S. and will not reach mass adoption in the foreseeable future,” according to the research firm.

The AR umbrella is wide, but here are some other examples that may better your world:

  • Ink Hunter (Tattoo Designs) – Enables the skittish to try on tattoos in augmented reality before committing an arm or a leg.
  • Augmented Car Finder (Augmented-Works) – Guides absent-minded drivers back to their parked vehicles.
  • SkyView (Terminal Eleven) – Lets stargazers harness their phones and tablets to identify celestial objects.
  • WallaMe (WallaMe Ltd.) – Empowers graffiti artists to share their creations in the actual locations without spray paint.

Ever since the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation raised our expectations to cosmic heights only to have them crash to earth with products like Sega’s VR glasses and Google Cardboard, reality has cast a monkey wrench into the potential of virtual reality time and again.

Maybe it’s a sign of technology maturing, but with the shine off virtual, the preferred reality for now is augmented.