How Will VR Come of Age?

Will virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) hit prime time?  It’s still early, but there’s a lot of corporate and VC activity buzzing around this fledgling industry.  At Augmented World 2015 in Silicon Valley, most of the VR exhibits looked fresh out of the lab and in search of useful applications.  Perhaps I have an advantage not being a VR developer since I can see why VR hasn’t taken off and what applications might be useful.

A quick history lesson:  In 1993, I wanted a “Mac interface for the Internet” when I worked at Stanford’s EE Department, but none of my ten computer science interns or the 100+ interface designers at Donald Norman’s course on Human-Computer Interface (HCI) wanted to create one.  They preferred complexity and told me to learn Unix in order to surf the web and send email.  Eight months later Mosaic appeared and the rest is history.  Simplicity won.

Today, VR feels similar to me.  It’s heavy, clunky, expensive and very technical. Applications are mostly automotive, industrial and high-end gaming, not something for the average business person or consumer, at least not yet.  The Oculus headset has attracted lots of attention, but it’s still for high-end gamers.

On the other hand, I recently met a wearable display developer who has created small attachable LC projectors for any pair of eyeglasses.  You just attach them to a magnet clip-on.  The screen displays a 2D LC screen, but he said it could be improved for panoramic video and eventually AR and VR.  Battery life is a problem, but easily solved by swapping out for another set from a charging box.  Simple and elegant, with lots of potential, just like GoPro in the early years.

So what will drive VR and AR adoption in volume?   Here are my bets:

Simple AR games using cheap glasses with clip-on projectors and Bluetooth to smartphones.  They would allow gamers to view and even download AR apps.  Building block and sim games, treasure hunts, visual quizzes, and other leisure games would be easy to create.

Building AR visualization that would allow children, designers, architects and planners to add rooms, textures, extensions, and other features would make it easy to reinvent your neighborhood.  It would tap into the natural curiosity and desire to visualize and build things without spending any money.

Sports viewing will be a big business since advertisers would be able to offer games, stats, contests, prizes, discounts and other goodies to support local sports clubs and school teams.

Body visualization that allow students, nurses and doctors learn about human organs, limbs and diseases would be a boon to public health education and medical training.  When combined with wearable tech, it would reinvent the way we learn and care for our bodies.  Telemedicine would enable people in remote towns and developing nations to access quality medical services.

Role-Playing to teach social etiquette, business practices, intercultural relations, professional roles, and other important social skills will become increasingly important in a service economy where people are becoming isolated by smartphones.

These are just some of the VR/AR applications that appear to have some traction among early users.  Once Oculus and other VR headsets decline in price, we’ll see an explosion of mobile apps that tap the power of VR/AR processing.  Here’s a BBC video about the future of VR to get your creative juices flowing:

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