VR vs AR: The Battle for Tech’s Love
It seems only a month ago virtual reality (or VR) had the tech world in its pocket, positioning itself as the clear darling and natural evolution of interactivity and immersive play.
On the heels of Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus last year, Playstation had announced its project Morpheus, HTC Vive was making waves and Samsung had even partnered with the aforementioned Oculus to bring Gear VR to the Android loving masses. Google favored the more limited approach with its low-fi high accessibility Google Cardboard. VR in the hands of the people - as long as they had the right attachments and specs. It was set to take over the world and developers everywhere were rushing to be the first to release the next big “VR experience”, as investors flooded this exciting new market with increasingly ridiculous amounts.
A month ago, something changed. A new challenger entered the fray, effectively eclipsing VR’s coverage on mainstream media outlets and millennial think pieces alike. AR (Augmented Reality) was in millions and millions of phones and you couldn’t walk a few paces without running into a user. To be completely fair, AR isn’t exactly “new” -you might still remember the ill-fated Google Glasses- but it was given new life through the magic of games… and extremely clever branding. I’m talking, of course, about the unavoidable Pokemon Go. This game has become so influential that it single handedly caused Nintendo’s stock to surge then plummet once investors realized the Japanese behemoth hadn’t developed it.
We’ll dive back into Pokemon Go in a second, but let’s first look at the fulgurous ascent of VR into tech royalty. We talked to Lebanese American game designer Ramsey Nasser who’s done a lot of work on branded VR content, and he had this to say about its rise: “it’s a kind of unsurprising push. We’ve seen this before. The dream of VR goes back to the 50s with “Sensorama” -the idea of a totally immersive interactive experience- and the tech has never truly matched the dream of multi-sensory immersion. So in the past 50 years we’ve seen hype levels rise and fall as technology had seemed to catch up to expectations. People thought we’d cleared that bar every time —like with Nintendo’s Virtual Boy headset—, but so far the experience has always fallen short. Right now we’re in another one of those highs, but whether that’s the definite one or not is still to be seen.”
On the sudden resurgence of AR and its apparent eclipsing of VR, Nasser had this to say: “AR is having its moment right now. 2016 was supposed to be the year of VR, promises were being made but nothing has been delivered yet. It makes people sick, it’s very exclusionary [writer’s note: you need money and space for the most basic setup]. It’s been talked about as the thing that will revolutionize the computer/human relationship. VR feels like a prophecy being forced into existence, AR is free of the expectations that plague VR. VR was built backwards and AR was built forwards in regards to the existing technology.”
Thanks to Pokemon Go, AR seems to have been put back on the map in a very big way. Where did the game come from? It didn’t spring out of nowhere, however novel the idea might seem. It was based on an app developed back in 2012 by Niantic Labs, Ingress, itself built on the gamification of Google Maps. For a quick bit of history, the creator of Ingress, John Hanke, was one of the founders of Keyhole, a company Google bought in the early 2000s. His company and team were subsequently absorbed into Google and put to work on Google Earth and Maps and found worldwide success. Google Maps soon became a household name, available on every phone and computer, supplanting GPS navigation systems everywhere.
Hanke came from a long succession of startups however, and soon convinced Google to let him find the start up Niantic Labs as an entity within Google itself. Niantic Labs released Ingress, a mobile exergame that pushes you to go outside, discover your neighborhood and socialize with other players as you play. Sounds familiar? Ingress has surpassed 15 million downloads and continues to grow today. When Google restructured last year to become Alphabet Inc, Niantic Labs broke away from its parent company and became Niantic. Hanke struck gold when he partnered up with the Pokemon Company and Nintendo, eschewing venture capital in the process, and making the hit mobile game Pokemon Go. It has made over 200 million dollars from in-app purchases so far.
In terms of recognizability and the concept of “killer apps”, Nasser thinks that Pokemon Go is the most recognizable, successful and accessible AR experience right now and anyone with a smartphone can run it. “On the other hand”, he says, “the most successful example of VR experiences runs on HTC Vive which is an exclusionary device as best.”
When designing tech’s Next Big Thing, keeping accessibility in mind is key to longevity. “You’re designing for humans, not dangling keys in front of high level executives”, says Nasser. “For all the money we’ve been dumping into VR, we’re ultimately building things for a very limited number of people. As a counterpoint, when you build stuff in AR, you’re designing for humans. The smartphone as a platform is key.”
AR being available to anyone with a smartphone when VR is mostly available to those with expensive headsets and powerful computers does seem to currently give it the upper hand. This doesn’t spell the end for VR, however. Nasser doesn’t think VR is going to disappear, because the tech is good enough to stick around, but as more of a gallery installation and performance tool as opposed to a popular device you find in every home.
AR is ultimately a more cost and space efficient option for developers today, but it doesn’t provide the immersive edge VR affords as it perfects its tech. The battle rages on.
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