PlayStation VR.(Photo: Sony/PlayStation)
FOSTER CITY, Calif. — Let’s be honest. Just the names themselves conjure up a strange combination of excitement, caution and a bit of disbelief.
Virtual reality? Augmented Reality? Or the latest variation, mixed reality? What are we supposed to make of our own, regular reality in light of all this stuff?
Truth is, once you move past the science fiction hysteria or philosophical heft of alternative realities, what we’re really talking about is new types of computing display technologies that allows us to see and interact with digital data of all types — from games and movies to educational material and travel-related content — in new and exciting ways.
Put simply, it’s a cool, very enveloping way to look at and engage with some neat stuff. Instead of merely looking at a display that’s a foot or two away from our eyes, VR and AR products (as they’re commonly shortened to) provide a goggles-like headset that puts a display right in front of your eyes. The result is a transformative way of viewing either a completely computer-generated world — in the case of VR — or a world where digitally rendered graphics are overlaid on the “real world,” in the case of AR. (Mixed reality devices essentially let you have both.) Frankly, it’s something you have to experience personally to truly understand and appreciate.
2016 has seen the introduction of several compelling new entries into the AR and VR world, including Microsoft’s standalone HoloLens, the PC-powered HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, the smartphone-powered Samsung Gear VR, and the game console-driven Sony Playstation VR. All of them offer an interesting and compelling glimpse into the new “realities” and new opportunities that AR and VR can enable. But they’re also all clearly early versions of a technology that you can tell is going to get significantly better over the next several years.
Oculus Home on the Rift. (Photo: Oculus VR.)
In 2017, I expect to see some major improvements in the world of AR and VR headsets, as well as the range and quality of content created for those devices. From reductions in price, improvements in setup and use, enhancements in display resolution and more, the next 12 months are bound to make what is already a compelling technology, even better.
We’ll also see a lot more new players enter the market over the next year. At the upcoming CES trade show in Las Vegas, VR- and AR-related products and content are expected to be some of the most closely-tracked developments.
Microsoft and Intel have already started to discuss their plans for simpler, less expensive new VR headsets attached to PCs running the Windows 10 Holographic Platform that’s due next spring. There’s even rumblings that Apple could be entering the market with some kind of iPhone add-on by the end of 2017.
Plus, while most of developments around AR and VR are consumer-focused, we’re also starting to see the beginning of business-focused applications that will get significantly more attention next year. From architectural drawings to 3-D modelling of parts to more realistic types of videoconferencing, we’re bound to see a number of commercial applications for VR in the new year.
Put it all together and it’s clear that a great deal of the tech industry’s attention is being focused on AR and VR technologies. Of course, that much interest can also lead to companies going out of their way to try and one-up each other in terms of positioning themselves against competitors — even to the point of vastly overselling what’s currently possible.
Though the jury is still out, this seems to be the case with Magic Leap, a widely hyped company with an AR technology that seems to be more smoke and special effects mirrors than working product. Whatever technology Magic Leap does have will likely be unveiled in 2017 as well.
Oculus Rift sends you into all surrounding other worlds and dimensions. (Photo: Oculus)
Despite all these developments, there are certainly still debates among tech industry watchers and participants as to how quickly AR and VR will become widely accepted among mainstream buyers. There are also still some questions about what AR and VR formats will be most popular.
As time goes by, however, there seems to be less and less discussion about whether or not that acceptance will happen. It’s just a question of when.
USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell and Qualcomm. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.