App Development

Thoughts on the State of Virtual and Augmented Reality

At WillowTree’s weekly “Lunch & Learn” meeting last week, Zach Costa walked us through his newly-acquired [HTC Vive](http://( For those who aren’t aware, the HTC Vive is yet another entrant to the virtual reality (VR) market. It costs about $800 dollars for the entire VR setup which includes a headset, paddles, and two base stations. In addition to the headset, you need a pretty powerful PC to power the software (which ran Zach about $1500).

At this point, we have seen and built a number of VR apps for the Oculus Rift and Cardboard, but haven’t felt the technology is ready for prime time just yet. Everyone knows VR products are expensive and clunky. In fact, until recently, we’ve felt VR tech misses the mark in terms of consumer viability. But after watching WillowTree’s Chief Operating Officer, Gregg Carrier, completely immerse himself in VRーin front of the entire companyーthrough Vive, I’m beginning to think VR may be closer to consumer viability than I previously thought.

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Before I continue on with that thought, however, let’s take a step back and talk about the difference between VR and Augmented Reality (AR).

What’s the Difference between VR and AR?

While they are often used interchangeably, VR and AR are quite different from each other. If they do have anything in common, it’s that neither of them are entirely new concepts and both have been around in various forms for some time (think about everyone’s favorite show, Star Trek, and the Holodeck or of the Head-up Display (“HUD”)) commonly used in aviation. This seems to be where the similarities end, though.

VR is a completely immersive experience. The idea is that once you enter the VR arena, you are transported to an entirely new ‘reality.’ The physical world that you actually occupy has little to no relevance when you’re in the virtual realm. This is why you can be shooting arrows at an invading horde one minute and swimming with a humpback whale the next. Every bit of imagery and the audible cues are completely virtual.

AR, on the other hand, keeps you in your physical space but adds bits of information to alter your experience. In aviation, for example, AR can give you your orientation in relation to the Earth (known as the “Artificial Horizon”) or targeting information. It does this all for the sake of helping you keep your eyes on what’s actually happening in the world while simultaneously enhancing the experience.

So why are VR and AR getting getting buzz now?

The short answer is that as Mobile has brought us new ways to communicate, date, shop, and work, it has also put the technology needed to begin building these new experiences in the hands of everyone. Around 2008 and 2009, it seemed like everyone wanted us to build AR into their apps after they experienced Yelp’s monocle feature. The fact that we could point our phones at the physical world and see signs and coupons for restaurants was mind blowing. Remember, mere mortals like us were not flying state-of-the-art fighter jets or living on the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701). This was a completely new experience. It’s understandable why we wanted this kind of experience in everything. But, as it is with all new technology, we quickly realized we were just scratching the surface and, in fact, were only in the pre-game portion of the main event. The technology just wasn’t there yet, so it sort of faded away for a few years.

Next, Google Glass entered our consciousness and AR was back in a big way. While I believe it was a visionary and brave endeavor Google took on, it was still too early. More recently, Microsoft released the Hololens , taking the concept of AR even further. It’s expensive, but we hear it’s already being used for R&D projects in various industrial environments, helping technicians maintain and repair equipment and even assisting with product assembly on factory floors. Even more recently, Magic Leap started hinting at the next-generation of ARーwhich, if you ask me, looks like something out of Star Trek.

VR, on the other hand, received its initial buzz when Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion in 2014. Facebook made its intentions very clear as they not only purchased the technology, but also the team behind Oculus Rift.

VR was and still is the “next big thing.” And while its entrance to the market hasn’t been a fast or smooth one, it’s inspired new entrants to flood the market with innovative, VR-compatible technologies.

How big are VR and AR going to be?

If you’re one of the folks that loves to read forecasts, you better be sitting down right about now because revenue from AR/VR is forecasted to hit $120 Billion by 2020 , according to Digi-Capital. Of course, hardware will drive this initially, but it will soon be followed by “…augmented commerce, data, voice, video, enterprise, theme park, advertising, apps, and game revenues.”

What’s the point of all this?

So while all this sounds awesome on the surface, what does it really mean? And, perhaps more importantly, is it time for your business to step into the AR or VR game? I can tell you we aren’t getting inquiries or seeing the demand for VR and AR like we do for other technologies already on the market (e.g. apps, beacons, Touch ID, IoT, and bots). Despite this, however, we are building AR and VR experiences for clients as a part of our R&D. Is the potential there? Yes, very much soーand it’s likely the R&D projects we are spearheading now may lead to some very innovative and effective ways for our clients to engage with their customers and workforces in the future. AR and VR are mediums that will have a big impact on a number of industries and markets, and we predict they will pay large dividends to organizations that begin to prepare and plan now for how to use the technology in the future.

I wasn’t initially excited about VR, but as mentioned, that’s changing. For the first time, I feel like we are close to the start of the actual first inning for this kind of technology. VR feels like the technology that will exit the gate first and I expect we will see it utilized more heavily by the entertainment industry (i.e. gaming and media) initially. More use cases will follow soon thereafter in areas like therapy and training.

AR and VR are exciting technologies that will provide better opportunities to truly engage and interact with end users across industries. It’s time to start paying attention and learning as much as you can about them now so you can begin prototyping and testing concepts that will be market-ready when the whistle blows.

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