If you’ve been even remotely following the latest technological news the past couple of years, you may well have come across the words virtual reality and augmented reality being bandied about quite a bit. Chances are you’ve already heard of virtual reality before – everyone remembers the huge clunky space-age helmets that, back in the 90s, promised to revolutionise how we see computers. We probably also remember how they flopped spectacularly.
Augmented reality is a new one however, and how come virtual reality is suddenly cropping up more and more frequently in today’s lexicon once again?
We’ll assume you’ve been living under a pancake for the time being so we can start from the top. What is virtual reality (VR), and what is augmented reality (AR)?
First, virtual reality is technology with which computers simulate a virtual world (hence the name) that the user can interact with. This was often heralded with images of someone looking in abject amazement as they “picked up” a digital apple that was more square than your drunken uncle’s dancing at the last family wedding.
Augmented reality, meanwhile, takes a bit of a step backwards. Rather than trying to create an entire digital world, it instead overlays our day-to-day world with digital information. Unlike VR, which completely overrides our view of the physical world, AR simply works with and alongside it. So, for example, a pair of AR goggles like Google Glass may superimpose a list of TV shows for you to watch as you sit down at the sofa, even as you’re flicking through the channels on said TV at the same time.
These technologies did not spring up out of nowhere, of course. The renaissance of VR, for example, can be tied to developments in screen resolution, more powerful PCs, better graphics, and more efficient power systems. Likewise, AR can also be linked to the growth of communications technology, especially smartphones and iPads.
Various brands such as Google, Steam, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft have all been trotting out their own pet projects, but we should be careful not to get carried away.
Ultimately the survival of these products depends on how they’re used. VR, for example, has been receiving a lot of attention, yet it’s unclear how we’re supposed to use it beyond very specific tasks (principally gaming). A VR headset, even if smaller and lighter than models from the 90s, is still very clunky and cannot leave the room it’s in. This means you’ve essentially paid £400 and up for a rather glorified PC monitor.
AR is more promising, because it ties in with more mobile technologies such as phones or glasses. As such it’s easy to imagine more scenarios in which AR might be used – one such example is construction work. However once again, it’s highly dependent on how it’s executed. If developers want to see AR (or VR) take off, they need to be creative and think outside the box on how to impress customers with this technology.