There are still reasons to be excited about AR and VR

It’s safe to say, as country after country goes into lockdown to stop the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, that most of those stuck inside with long hours of free time to fill would welcome the possibility of putting on a headset and suddenly find themselves transported to a parallel virtual world.

The only issue is that despite the wonders that AR and VR interfaces have promised for years, and although both the hardware and the content for virtual platforms already exist, next to no one to date one has a headset sitting on their living rooms shelves at home.

Speaking at an – online – conference about immersive technologies today, the CEO of UK-based agency Digital Catapult Jeremy Silver remarkable applications of AR and VR exist already.

“We can already create emotions in people or enhance their empathy. But we need to spread that vision of the future more evenly. There is still an issue with penetrating people’s homes, which has been a slower process than hoped for.”

AR and VR have already been taken up by the biggest players in the entertainment industry to deliver new ways of creating performances, with enthusiasts arguing it is at a stage comparable to the birth of cinema in the early 20th century.

In the UK, for instance, motion capture guru Andy Serkis has been working with Magic Leap, the maker of self-described ‘spatial computer’ headsets, to bring characters animated by actors’ play into AR environments. The idea is that users wearing a Magic Leap headset could interact and play with creatures enacted by professional actors, starting with Serkis himself.

And many will remember Madonna’s buoyant performance at the Billboard Music Awards last summer, during which no less than four extra Madonnas took the stage at the same time as the flesh-and-bone singer. All four – a musician, a cha-cha dancer, a secret agent and a bride – were augmented reality versions of Madonna, built in partnership with UK-based company Dimension Studios, which specializes in creating photo-realistic digital humans.

Not to mention the applications that AR and VR already have in gaming – an industry that has been established as one of the most promising fields for both technologies. The 2016 Pokemon Go game, which placed virtual creatures all over the world for players to catch via their smartphone, was only a taster of things to come; and it was downloaded over one billion times.

And consumer use-cases in entertainment and media are only the tip of the iceberg, some argue, with virtual platforms also come in handy in healthcare. Last year, a hospital in Birmingham demonstrated how a clinician based at a workstation in a hospital could assess and diagnose a patient in an ambulance located two miles away, via live videos and close-up images seen through a VR headset. Immersive platforms are also used to better train health professionals, and faster; medical training company FundamentalVR has just launched a new interface that lets trainee surgeons mimic the physical cues of surgical actions, to a level of detail that the company said even lets users get a feel for tissue variations.

Jason Hawthorne, chief digital officer at city modelling company Vue.city, explained how AR is changing the game for city planning and real estate. The Vu.city platform lets users access a 3D version of London that is accurate to 15 centimetres, so that architects, developers and planning consultants can model future projects much more efficiently.

“We can even include levels of sunlight, to model shadowing on any day of the year,” said Hawthorne. “We can understand things at the human scale, as if we were walking down the street.”

And while, according research firm PwC, AR and VR will add £1.4 trillion ($1.75 trillion) to the global economy by 2030, progress is still very slow.

As encouraging as examples are, they aren’t sufficient to hide the norm: that immersive technologies are still far from benefiting from the uptake that can make them mainstream. One of the most telling statistics might be the global population penetration rate for VR headsets, which a report from Futuresource Consulting estimates is only 2%.

It is worth noting that the trend varies from country to country. A report from PwC noted an “impressive adoption of the technology” in manufacturing in the US, for example, where more than a third of the companies surveyed said they were already using VR or were planning to do so in the next three years. Then of course, the US is also where most top-notch AR and VR headset manufacturers are based, ranging from Facebook-owned Oculus to HTC, which produces the Vive headset, through Magic Leap and Microsoft’s business-oriented HoloLens.

The UK, therefore, is up against the biggest players in trying to drive the adoption of immersive technologies. But the country already has some solid assets: it is estimated that no less than 1,250 companies in the UK are currently actively dedicated to AR and VR. Government too is chipping in, particularly in the form of a £33 million ($41 million) fund for initiatives creating “ground-breaking immersive experiences”. Digital Catapult’s Augmentor Programme, which runs in conjunction with the government, also helps selected projects develop their idea and secure investor funding.

For Simon Fletcher, CTO of UK5G Innovation Network, the obstacle still lying in the way of AR and VR is not the lack of demand. Quite the contrary: speaking from an enterprise perspective, he said that most industries are willing to invest time and money in trialing the technologies and seeing if they can bring value.

The issue, rather, is that users still can’t be sure of the value they’ll get for their money when they invest in AR and VR. “From discussions I’ve led on the demand side, there are still some concerns, especially with the quality of networks, latency and lag,” said Fletcher. “So we need to be quite gritty with the quality of service that can be delivered.”

As 5G networks start rolling out around the world, however, there is reason to hope that the experience of AR and VR will improve. For both consumers and industry, faster connectivity will immediately impact the appeal of immersive technologies.

Then, there will always be the issue of headset quality, with immersive hardware being regularly slammed as being too clunky and too heavy; or of regulation, as privacy settings are likely to need a fresh wave of policy-making as soon as more users start wearing gear that basically records everything they see.

And other issues are likely to emerge, which can’t even be predicted just yet. Immersive technologies still have a long way ahead, and will require an integrated approach to be a success. But although the technology might not be ready in time to keep you busy in the current lock down, it’s not time yet to give up on AR and VR. “We have to act in a concerted way,” said Silver, “but the level of momentum in the last years will overcome the challenges. I am optimistic that there are some immense opportunities going forward.”

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