Monday 17 January 2022

Why I am more excited for Augmented Reality than the Metaverse

With Zuckerberg recently popularising the term ‘Metaverse’ it is a bit easier for people to discuss the upcoming virtual space we might one day be spending most of our time in. Of course it’s not a new concept, the idea has been around for decades and many virtual worlds already exist (MMO’s, Second Life, VRChat, PSHome and more). But with improvements to VR headsets we are near normalisation of such concepts and acceptance in the mainstream. The next decade or two is going to be huge for VR

VR is great, it’ll enable immersive video games and experiences like no other. Putting you directly into the movie or game, the entertainment value is unprecedented. VR at it’s best will be fully controllable shared dream experiences where you can do anything with anyone whenever, that might be a long way off but the immersive aspect is getting better yearly. You’ll be able to do amazing things without ever leaving your chair. VR worries me however, for the same reason MMO’s have worried me since playing Runescape back in the day. It exemplifies extreme escapism where people give up on the real world and fully immerse themselves in the digital world. These games can provide what is missing in one's life, friendship, fulfilment, success, excitement but will never be the same as real world experiences and will always lead to downfall. This neglect of the real world is tragic and the metaverse will make it possible for countless more people to be lost in such a state. Not to say VR is inherently evil, quite the opposite, but it would be neglectful to not consider it’s powerful allure to those most in need and to prepare for intervention.

Personally I am more interested in Augmented Reality (AR) and believe the technology is on the edge of release whereas quality VR experiences are a while off yet. AR is the integration of the digital and real world, it’s an overlay on what we see around us. Imagine a pair of glasses that alter your version, adding digital objects, information and even changing aspects of the real world. Think of the countless examples in media, with holograms and such where digital and real world blend. If VR is the ultimate video game that puts you in the game, AR is the ultimate user experience that puts the game in the real world.

Imagine you’re at a conference, above other attendees heads is their name, job role and company. With a flick of your hand you can request to add their contact details to your contact book. Maybe you have a conversation with them, later that day you can check a record of who you talked to. Say you’re in an unfamiliar city and need to navigate to where your friend is at, rather than having to look down at Google Maps on your phone, you could see a large arrow ahead of you, or a line running along the floor guiding your way, or even a subtle change of hue with red showing the wrong and green showing the correct turn down a street. Imagine an updated Pokémon GO where you could engage in battles with friends in open fields or interact with your Pokémon as if they were real. Imagine if every surface you come across could become a computer, you stick your phone down and the photos you’ve taken recently jump out, you can move and manipulate them right there on your dining room table, fling them into a friends device for an easy transfer (this was the original idea Microsoft had with Surface, but at the time it would include actual projector systems and be very expensive, but the idea and concept videos they produced are a perfect example of what AR could be doing). 

In fact, AR is already here. It’s not a new technology, we’ve had it in our phones for a long time. It’s just a case of the phone not really being the best hardware to fully take advantage of AR, just a good place to test it out. Once the hardware is ready, a pair of glasses or goggles, AR is going to be huge.  

Whereas VR replaces our reality, AR enhances it. Of course AR has problems too. Privacy concerns? Huge. Everything you do and see may be recorded, even if you turn your device off, others around you will be wearing theirs (I wear normal glasses to see, so i’d likely be always in AR). How about intrusive adverts? Adverts may find themselves in our homes, in our peripheral version all day. Could a company pay for their products to seem more appealing over their competitors by literally changing our visual perception? Basically any issues we already face in today's digital landscape we will face in AR but on a heightened level with even less escape, though thankfully that means the discussion is already taking place.

There’s also MR (MIxed Reality), which is the overlap of VR and AR. Say you’re having a business meeting, five of you are sitting around a nice big board meeting table in person, another three of you are attending virtually, with the five present in the real world seeing the other three in AR, the three seeing a VR environment, fake desk and all. Alternately, your Pokémon you’ve spent all day walking with in the real world using AR can now join you in the latest game using VR when you sit down to play on an evening.

I do look forward to VR and hope to pick up an Oculus Quest or something eventually. But for now, my interest firmly rests with AR and I am excited to see what Apple has been working on for years now.

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