Anyone with even a passing interest in innovation will know that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have been touted as ‘game-changing’ technologies for years and, in some cases, decades.
Even so, their ability to cut through into people’s everyday lives always seems to lie just out of grasp, like a shimmering digital mirage on the horizon. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read deflated commentators explain that widespread adoption of VR and AR is probably just one more iteration away.
But as technological advances, consumer interest and industry investment collide, I think we may be about to see these nascent industries boom.
I’m not suggesting this convergence has appeared out of the blue. There has been an unmistakable creep during recent years, driven in no small part by increased adoption of VR and AR in the face of the pandemic.
Consequently, companies that previously seemed somewhat reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) are now incorporating these technologies into their short- and medium-term business plans.
So, does this mean VR and AR are finally ready to break through into the mainstream?
And, if so, how are they likely to change our lives?
Opening up the metaverse
The much-discussed metaverse is as good a place as any to consider the potential ramifications of these technologies.
The vision of metaverse proponents (myself included) is to build a truly immersive virtual world in which digital denizens can interact with entertainment, brands and – most importantly – one another.
There are plenty of metaverse sceptics out there and I can understand why. After all, it’s difficult to get excited about technologies based on second-hand accounts and explanations at the best of times, but especially when extended to first-hand, subjective experiences. This is like trying to advertise colour television in black and white; it just doesn’t make sense.
Similarly, the use of VR and AR technologies in conjunction with the metaverse needs to be experienced first-hand to be believed.
We should also keep in mind the potential of these technologies to enhance people’s quality of life through improved accessibility. Just consider how the metaverse, powered by VR and AR, could bring new experiences to a wider audience, enabling people of determination, for instance, to enjoy life in ways that would not previously have been possible.
Another reason for optimism when it comes to VR and AR going mainstream is the constantly growing landscape of compatible platforms.
The latest iteration of the web is all about decentralisation, wrestling the power from huge corporations such as Meta, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google, and redistributing it among more diverse online communities.
That’s not to say these tech giants will become an endangered species (on the contrary, I’ve no doubt the biggest players are busy eyeing opportunities related to decentralisation), but their roles are likely to evolve significantly during the coming decade.
The point is that our digital future will be more social and more user centric. We all stand to benefit from this shift, and as smaller, more agile companies continue to develop their own platforms, we will no doubt see VR and AR environments springing up across the web.
Sports and entertainment
Many of us already engage with AR on a daily basis, using our smartphones’ ever-growing capabilities to add effects to our images and videos via social media overlays. But this is just the beginning.
As many of you will know, a range of gaming-centric AR and VR offerings have come to market during recent years, with everything from the more casual Pokémon and Harry Potter games to hardware such as PS VR and Oculus Quest.
Sport is another area in which I believe VR and AR will become the norm, enhancing experiences for both spectators and participants. Imagine cycling through a beautiful scenic route from the comfort of your exercise bike, or perhaps exercising in a sci-fi-inspired futurescape. Well, now you can.
Bringing the world to us
While nothing quite beats meeting in person, VR has the ability to bring people together in meaningful, connected ways across continents. The potential advantages for business meetings, family time and socialising are therefore easy to envisage.
There are, of course, indirect benefits of this shift to virtual connectivity. Remote meetings can help save travel time as well as the planet, since there’s no need to jump on a flight when you can interact with your colleagues, family and friends regardless of your respective locations.
AR, on the other hand, will allow for a shift in the way inanimate objects are viewed in the world – not to mention how we interact with them. I foresee greater adoption of this technology in advertising, experiential entertainment and even the food and beverage sector, for instance.
Not if, but when
Put simply, VR and AR stand to change our lives in almost every respect by enhancing our physical reality and introducing richer experiences to the time we spend online.
But will this be the year when these technologies finally hit the mainstream? The optimist in me says yes…
But perhaps we’ll need to wait for just one more iteration.