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Facing the Realities of VR and AR

Posted by on October 5, 2016.

It’s hard to separate important innovations from mere fads. The technology industry can be especially difficult in this regard, constantly throwing out curve-balls that take analysts by surprise. So many devices once considered to be game-changers have been forgotten without contributing much to their relevant spheres, while even something as wide-ranging and dominant as gaming itself has grown and grown, despite being considered a dead market in the early ‘80s.

In the gaming industry, two new technologies are rising – Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. Both have huge potential to change the direction of games development and extend into the wider technological world, but they also stand the same risk of falling by the wayside as any other innovation. It’s impossible to predict for certain where the future of these two technologies lies, but by examining their history we may be able to make a more educated guess.

While ‘Virtual Reality’ extends to many devices and concepts used to simulate the sensation or experience of an interactive medium, for the purposes of this article ‘VR’ and ‘Virtual Reality’ will be used to refer to the devices that simulate the visual experience of reality, often through stereoscopic vision through a headset. Arguably, this kind of VR stretches all the way back to 1939, with devices like the ‘View-Master’, which simulated a stereoscopic view of static images; a creative toy for the time, but little more than that.

The development of virtual reality continued from the 50s onward, always driven by entertainment – starting with Morton Heilig’s ‘Sensorama’ viewing station for specially developed movies. Incorporating VR with computer entertainment first happened in the arcades of the early 1980s, but was still quite primitive in this state, as full 3D graphics had not even seen their advent outside of the VR world at that point. Nintendo made one of the earliest attempts at VR for home gaming with the release of the Virtual Boy in 1995, but the device never became popular with consumers. The technology behind the stereoscopic headset was still not sufficiently advanced to be practical, and the lack of graphical power that could be put into the device meant it couldn’t provide an experience on par with the other gaming systems of the day. The Virtual Boy was discontinued just six months after its launch and, until the Oculus Rift and other devices were announced, there was no more mention of VR on the mass market.

Augmented Reality, in contrast to VR’s long, motivated search for a very specific entertainment experience, has had more of a sudden, overnight surge in popularity. This is almost certainly in large part thanks to Pokémon Go, which combined the already successful Pokémon franchise with Niantic’s experience in AR game development, in an accessible, well-publicised package that struck the right note with a great deal of consumers. While AR games have certainly been around before now, none of them ever caught on anywhere near as much as Pokémon Go.

However, it’s important to note that augmented reality has existed for a relatively long time as well, at least since the 1990s. A key difference is that AR was not originally connected to gaming or even entertainment – the first use of AR was in the US Air Force, in fighter pilots’ training. The development and use of the technology was for exclusively education and training purposes until the year 2000, with the release of ARQuake.

The first video game to use AR technology, ARQuake overlaid assets from the popular Quake game onto a live display of the real world. Naturally, this required an extensive set of peripherals, including a VR-like headset. The game was more of a proof of concept and research project than a consumer product, and was never made available on the mass market. It was, however, ahead of its time, using GPS and monitoring technology that would not see widespread availability via smartphones for several more years.

This already gives us a clear distinction between Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies; VR has been an entertainment dream for the industry to chase after for decades, and it seems almost inevitable that each advance in technology would bring a fresh attempt at a fully realised VR experience. AR, on the other hand, seems to have found its popularity almost by accident and with very little warning. Despite all the history behind AR, Pokémon Go marks the first time that consumers have really latched on to Augmented Reality, and it has yet to wake up as an industry sector.

But how much of a future in the gaming industry do these products have? Over the next decade, will one become a part of daily life while the other becomes a forgotten gimmick? Which is the likely winner between the two? It has to be said that Augmented Reality has taken a significant lead. Pokémon Go crested $200 million revenue in a single month on a free-to-play model, and has just released a wearable peripheral – Pokémon Go Plus. Even this optional device is already selling extremely well among players of the game, having been sold out on Amazon and GameStop before launch day. In contrast, the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have seen reports of stymied sales growth, despite promising figures earlier in the year.

However, the longevity of AR and VR is still very much in the air. Pokémon Go is currently Augmented Reality’s only real product; the only major AR gaming release since 2012, with no plans for any more in the near future. While there are many companies working experimentally with AR technology, we have yet to see any sign of a breakout product or killer app outside of gaming that can keep it widespread among consumers. If neither the gaming industry nor other fields make use of the opportunity that Pokémon Go has presented, Augmented Reality could well be sidelined again.

Virtual Reality, on the other hand, has not yet finished fully deploying, with Sony’s own entry into the VR market still set to release in the next few weeks. While the projected figures on Sony VR are not as strong as the Rift or the Vive, it has the advantage of launching on an already successful gaming platform, with the early support of many third-party developers. With a much more competitive price point than other VR devices, Sony VR may well demonstrate whether or not VR is really viable in today’s marketplace.

Despite its flagging sales, VR is seeing a large amount of support, investment and research from other technological industries. Cinematography, science, social media and education are all investing in making use of VR technology. Uptake on the part of software developers often makes or breaks a platform just as much as consumer interest does, and may well prevent the currently slow sales from stopping VR in its tracks.

There is certainly room for both AR and VR to coexist successfully if they can open up the market. By its nature, Augmented Reality requires a display, a processor and an optical input device, such as a camera – elements which are already present in current mobile phones. VR requires clunkier, less portable technology but offers a much more immersive experience, making it better suited to home gaming. This gives each of them a natural market niche alongside mainstream and mobile gaming, both of which are immensely successful industries that do not hamper each other.

Each field has a large obstacle to overcome – VR with its prohibitive costs, and AR with its sluggish response to the sudden surge in attention. It would be short-sighted to call an outright victory for AR at this stage; it may have more market potential and certainly more attention from consumers right now than VR does, but there are more irons in Virtual Reality’s fire, and creative industries have been pursuing viable Virtual Reality technology for decades; if the hardware finds any real foothold with consumers, the ideas and research are already in place to capitalise on VR.

As far as gaming is concerned, the future of VR and AR could go anywhere. AR has the opportunity to even further increase the power of the mobile gaming sector, while VR seems the natural next step to home gaming technology, and they both have the potential to bridge the gap between gaming and wider industry. Despite this, neither technology has yet secured its success, and there is still every chance that both fields will never grow to rival traditional console and PC gaming.

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Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |