The Parent’s Introductory Guide to Understanding Augmented & Virtual Reality

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Categorized under: technology trends

Recently Magic Leap, an augmented reality startup, received a $500 million dollar investment. This investment is in addition to the $1.4 billion dollars already received and includes participation from moonshot supporter Google. Another augmented reality company, Niantic, maker of Pokemon Go recently received a $200 million dollar investment to develop a Harry Potter title. 3 years ago, Facebook acquired virtual reality headset maker, Oculus VR, for $2 billion. Google famously developed a wearable computer that was designed to ubiquitously integrate the physical and virtual world. Unfortunately, the 1st iteration of Google Glass didn't quite take off. However, there was plenty of learning that Google incorporated into the 2nd iteration. Google Glass enterprise is now being used in factories and early adopters of the technology are seeing measurable improvements in productivity.

Given the level of smart money chasing XR – augmented reality and virtual reality, we thought it was important to provide a better understanding of these technologies and how they might apply to your child’s life going forward.

What is augmented reality (AR)?

Augmented reality is a live or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated or extracted real-world sensory input such as sound, video, graphics, haptic or GPS data. For example when using Google Maps or Waze and the road you are driving on turns red to indicate increased traffic congestion, that is augmented reality.  

What is virtual reality (VR)?

Virtual reality is a computer technology that uses virtual reality headsets or multi-projected environments, sometimes in combination with physical environments or props, to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user's physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment. For example if you used a virtual reality headset from Oculus VR or Google Pixel with headset, the environments can make you feel as though you are on a roller coaster (including the nausea inducing drops and loops) or driving a car.

What's different?

One of the biggest reasons why XR technologies are coming to reality is the advances in the underlying hardware. The smartphones that we carry around in our pockets while small have a tremendous amount of computing power. In addition, there are sensors embedded within these devices that enable the smartphone to gain better inputs from the environment. Also, the screens on these devices have a tremendous amount of visual clarity and acuity. These inputs combined with the affordability enables XR technologies to be built as applications on top of these devices.

The same technologies that have been incorporated into smartphones also are available for standalone virtual reality headsets. This is driving the price point lower and lower which reduces the barriers for widespread consumer adoption.

Another positive development that we are now seeing is the increased miniaturization of the hardware that powers these devices. For example the recently launched Apple Watch now incorporates cellular capabilities. This means that not only can it be used independently of a smartphone. But, it has similar features and functionality to a much larger device. This creates increased opportunities to create XR type experiences either in partnership with a smartphone or independently.

Searching for the killer application

Virtual reality initially received more interest because of the direct applications and perceived evolution to gaming environments. However, as technologies have improved, augmented reality has received increased interest because of the ability to utilize in a physical environment with a smartphone. Overall, the hypothesis of investment and interest in XR is that technology can help improve environments in ways that are desirable to human users. Given improvements in computing power, developer skills, and user experience, we will see increasing applications of XR in our daily lives. 

While the initial use cases will be geared more towards recreation (gaming), mass adoption will depend on implementations with high levels of utility. For example, imagine an augmented reality application that will guide you through your local hardware store to find every item on your list for an upcoming kitchen renovation using GPS or beacon based technology. And then imagine that you could view examples of your future kitchen using a virtual reality headset to make sure you appreciated all the changes before you began demolition. Finally, imagine that you could use an augmented reality application to help with cabinet installation. The ability to take a do-it-yourself weekend warrior and make her a professional through the use of technology could be a game changer.

Another example might be that during your kid’s science unit on reactions, they are able to put on a virtual reality headset and conduct several experiments safely using a virtual chemistry laboratory. They could go one step further than the traditional physical environment allows by leveraging an augmented reality application to selectively mix chemicals and see their reactions. Instead of potentially creating an unsafe environment by mixing potassium and water; they could see the explosion simulated real-time in an XR powered environment. This would help solidify learning and help kids improve their understanding of science by conducting the experiment over and over again in their technologically enhanced environment.

The startups and companies that are currently received massive levels of investment such as Magic Leap is because their prototypes are at a level of fidelity that makes it hard to tell between virtual and real objects/environments. While this might seem hard to believe, if you have had the opportunity to try out a virtual reality headset; they are much more immersive than you could imagine.

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