Virtual reality (VR), once the stuff of science fiction novels, is now rapidly maturing. By 2018, there will be 170 million global active users of consumer VR products, and analysts predict $105 billion in VR sales by 2020. It’s time to understand the real and present impact of VR technology, and its sibling, augmented reality (AR).
As the name suggests, augmented reality lets you experience the real world in a new way by overlaying it with interactive digital images and information. A prime example of consumer AR is Pokémon Go, Nintendo’s wildly popular mobile game (100 million downloads and counting).
Both VR and AR rely on technical infrastructure that, until recently, had limitations that prevented widespread adoption and innovation. These limits have lifted as processors, graphics cards, and screens have become more sophisticated, delivering smooth VR/AR experiences and enabling use on mobile devices. New 3D printers have also amplified the potential for significant VR component production, and the development of smart VR/AR glasses has made the technology more consumer-friendly. This will only continue as glasses and headsets continue to evolve, with improved battery life and view quality.
Gamers and game developers recognized the potential of VR/AR technology from its earliest days, and games still reflect some of its most sophisticated applications. But now the technology has gained a foothold in a wide range of other sectors, with exciting results. The New York Times, for example, recently partnered with Google to produce “The Displaced,” a VR film experience that brought people into the world of three children displaced by war.
There’s tremendous potential for AR/VR in retail, too. Lowe’s, the home improvement company, has launched “Holorooms” in several stores. At these locations, customers can test appliance layouts by creating virtual rooms with specified dimensions. Lowe’s is also developing an AR experience that would let customers shop without leaving their homes, by superimposing new products over their existing rooms.
Holograms are also helping medical students learn, replacing human cadavers and body parts in anatomy classrooms. And AR glasses allow technicians to overlay technical schematics on industrial machinery in a factory (or on a broken washing machine in your laundry room).
The rise of the internet of things—objects and buildings connected to the internet and to each other—opens up even more prospects for AR products, services, and experiences. This emerging web of connected things relies on wireless networking, wireless sensor networks, smart devices, robotics, and machine-to-machine communication systems. As these technologies improve and become more widely available, we will see a proliferation of AR services and experiences that make our surroundings responsive, interactive, and capable of being manipulated.
So the question for business leaders is this: What does your industry look like when the real and virtual worlds overlap? How will products and services change with the application of virtual and augmented reality technology? As lines between the real and virtual worlds continue to blur, one thing is clear—infrastructure advancement will make just about anything possible. The only real limit is our imagination.
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