Nerd Gadgets

Why augmented reality is the Next Big Thing

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Image: Magic Leap

Image: Magic Leap

2016’s technology calendar has been overwrought with variants of “The Samsung Gear VR is here!” or “Greatness Awaits with Playstation VR.” Its all about VR, apparently, though the enveloping nature of the tech still has yet to gain any substantial hold on any consumers outside of “early adopters.”

It seems as though Facebook’s purchase of wunderkind Palmer Luckey’s Oculus startup in March of 2014 did nothing but catapult VR stocks in the interim, as every single tech company’s primary focus over the past two years have all been virtually (heh, get it?) uniform – be the first to capitalize upon the virtual reality channel. Google, Samsung, LG, Playstation/Sony, HTC, and Oculus have all thrown their hats into the first run VR ring, but all of their headsets rely heavily upon the involvement of a smart phone. I can’t speak for everyone, but I assumed the “truest” form of virtual reality would be sans smartphone, but then again, I’m just a writer.

Anyway, there’s one HUGE problem with virtual reality’s current state – all VR headsets require the user to physically walk in order to “explore” new environments. Now I highly doubt that the future features everyone walking around with Geordi La Forge glasses and waving their arms around at virtual objects, but until virtual reality rooms or something absurd like specialty sidewalks are designated for VR users, something else is going to have to take its place as the predominant tech that will further humans’ interaction with technology one small step closer, as opposed to a giant leap toward “singularity.”

That “small step” is augmented reality.

Augmented reality is kind of a blanket statement in tech – its not fully engrossing like virtual reality, but it is technologically “heightened” as opposed to general reality. Think of it this way, the Princess Leia “Help me Obi Wan” hologram in A New Hope is an example of augmented reality in pop culture, as is the Tupac hologram that performed at Coachella in 2012. The pop culture uses of augmented reality are obviously fueled by their ability to entertain consumers in a unique and innovative way, but there are other far more beneficial aspects of augmented reality that would certainly advance multiple industries and business models for the every day consumer as well. It could even turn the Apple Watch into an actually useful object as opposed to an expensive conversation starter.

Augmented reality is far more tenable than virtual reality when it comes to being an everyday asset for the common user – it’s a live, direct or indirect view of a physical, real world environment whose elements are augmented by computer generate sensory input like sound, GPS data, graphics, and video. In a way, the computer device would “mediate” reality, in the sense that rather than completely removing the user form reality a la VR, the user’s everyday actions and interactions would be streamlined by the mediating computer.

While most practical augmented reality models are still in their respective beta phases, there are a couple of industry stalwarts that will likely become the industry standard, one a giant corporation, and the other a highly secretive start up. Facebook, the giant corporation that purchased Oculus for $2 billion, shipped out its clunky VR headset in early April of 2016, but the company has already identified augmented reality as the most sensible advance in technology advances. Facebook has already announced its intentions to work towards a smaller, transparent lens that resembles a pair of glasses to double as augmented reality specs. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stated that augmented reality “gives you the ability to see the world, but also deliver overlays on top of the real world.” Not quite as scary as the Wall-E scenario, so that’s a step in the right direction.

The other stalwart in augmented reality is the highly secretive Magic Leap based out of Florida. The company has worked on developing a first person view augmented reality program that be used in a variety of fields – everyday business practices, social media, e-commerce, along with general communication like texting. The interesting twist with Magic Leap is that the company doesn’t refer to itself as an augmented reality developer, but rather a “Mixed Reality Lightfield” technology company. There appear to be even larger things coming for Magic Leap, as the tech startup has already received $793 million in funding during the company’s most recent funding run.

While augmented reality is not yet an over saturated field of middling entry-level models like virtual reality, it could be poised to become so. That in mind, the practicality of augmented reality seems far more utilitarian than that of VR, and it looks like major tech companies agree – outside of Facebook and Magic Leap, name brand companies like Snapcaht, Google, and Qualcomm have already laid the groundwork for upcoming augmented reality projects. The future is bright for augmented reality, and its seamless integration potential with things like wearable tech makes it the most important innovative technology being developed today.

Sean considers himself a poor man's polymath and finds solipsism amusing. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @mchugh_sean, or not. That's fine.

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