As both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have developed, it has become increasingly clear that the latter is the more versatile of the two. Yes, VR has huge potential in areas like gaming and sports coaching, to name just a couple, but AR has applications so broad that it could fundamentally change tech as we know it going forward.
Technology has, for so long, taken us out of the real world. When smartphone users are locked into a game on their devices, they are often oblivious to the world around them, and the game itself in no way attempts to connect with that world. Playing on a Playstation is, with only very rare exception, primarily a solitary and indoor experience. The sensation that was Pokemon Go was predicated on making that connection, and its clever (if relatively basic) use of AR captured the imagination and made it a sensation.
Perhaps the most inspiring company involved in AR at the moment, though, is Magic Leap. In a similar vein to the likes oh Hololens, Magic Leap calls its goggles ‘mixed-reality’, and they are far closer to AR than they are to VR and have a host of real-world applications. The device, called Lightwear, has a look as futuristic as the world it invites users into, and the reviews of the product’s early demo have been overwhelmingly positive. Magic Leap is going down the consumer route, choosing to demonstrate how it can make ordinary life easier and more magical, as well as its potential to host immersive games. The company has used its substantial investment to purchase a huge amount of content, and it looks as though the company is building a healthy ecosystem of content to accompany the device when it eventually launches. 2018 is poised to be the year it makes a real impact rather than a conceptual one, and AR may well have found its forerunner.
There are, however, some teething problems for Magic Leap to solve. Firstly, the field of vision covered by the invisible 'frame' is limited. 'I couldn't' measure it, so I did the next best thing: I spent a few minutes holding out first a credit card in front of my face and then my hands to try to be able to describe how big that invisible frame is,' wrote reporter Rony Abovitz after testing Magic Leap. 'The credit card was much too small. I ended up with this: The viewing space is about the size of a VHS tape held in front of you with your arms half extended. It's much larger than the HoloLens, but it's still there.'
The other is to make a device that is eventually untethered from a controlling computer. At present, Magic Leap works only in conjunction with a pouch-sized computer that users can clip to their waists. It’s a novel solution to the issue of tethering for now, but in the future devices will likely need to be completely untethered to see mainstream adoption.
Even so, both those involved with the product and those looking in from the outside are rightly enthused about AR as a technology. ’I’m incredibly excited by AR because I can see uses for it everywhere,' Apple CEO Tim Cook said. 'I can see uses for it in education, in consumers, in entertainment, in sports. I can see it in every business that I know anything about. I also like the fact that it doesn't isolate. I don't like our products being used a lot. I like our products amplifying thoughts and I think AR can help amplify the human connection. I've never been a fan of VR like that because I think it does the opposite. There are clearly some cool niche things for VR but it's not profound in my view. AR is profound.'
The scale of variety in AR's potential uses is demonstrated by the fact that everyone from the military to L’Oréal has already made use of the technology. After a series of nonstarters (Google Glass, we’re looking at you), it is time that a company released a genuinely workable AR product, with the potential for actual mainstream appeal. Despite the lingering reservations about the details of Magic Leap’s product, it seems that the company is building an ecosystem that could take off as more than just a gimmick. If AR is to be the next game-changing technology, then Magic Leap could well be its talisman.