The paradigms of computing are changing. In the past 3 decades, computers changed the way in which we have been communicating and carrying out day to day activities. Over the past 10 years, the mobile revolution swept the world and has for better or for worse changed the way which we interact with the world around us and the way in which businesses have been functioning and business models have evolved.
A business like Uber would have just not been possible in a world where the smartphone did not exist.
We have witnessed path breaking changes over the past few years which have altered our way of life quite rapidly. Therefore, its important to understand where computing paradigms are headed and how this will affect the businesses of the future.
Based on the technologies that I have seen, VR and AR seem to be the next paradigms of computing.
What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual Reality is a technology that replicates or recreates the environment around you. Virtual reality takes advantage of both the visual and the auditory senses. This creates a much more immersive experience for the user and places them in an environment that they can interact with and manipulate.
This picture is a perfect example of how immersive the environment is.
Since the entire environment is imagined or artificial, and disconnected from the real surroundings, the degree of movement that the user can be afforded is limited. Its essential that the space in which the user is allowed to move in, has no obstacles.
This implies that the applications for VR will be ‘motion limited’. A person would almost certainly be sitting when using VR. Even if they are allowed to move, the degree of freedom is going to be fairly limited. This leads us to a specific set of applications that are possible for VR.
Games will obviously be a huge draw and therefore a huge money spinner in this segment purely due to the immersive feel of the experience. It will also be used to create incredible content experience, audio and visual. Imagine a movie where you can be part of the decisions the protagonist makes. The avenues for movie-makers to make money will expand incredibly with the mainstream adoption of VR. Group VR experiences where 4 friends live the Point of View of various characters in the movies, the possibilities seem endless.
VR will also find a whole host of applications on the enterprise side. Hospital might use it to provide better visualisation for doctors to prepare for surgeries or conduct pinhole surgeries. VR can also be used in the area of engineering design, architecture and designing in general.
While all of these possibilities seem exciting, the constraint is in terms of moving beyond a defined space. It is possible to map your entire house and render spatial awareness so you can have the headset on and move about, but it does not seem like an appealing solution, which brings us around to AR.
What is Augmented Reality?
As the name suggests, it is a technology that allows you to interact with your surrounding environment with a variety of elements added to it. There are many ways in which this can be implemented, but the essence of it is to enhance your perception of reality using a computing device. Since AR only augments and does not recreate, it provides you the environmental and spatial context around you and enables movement.
Augmented reality adds elements to the reality that surrounds you. This can be in the form of content such as video that appears in your environmental context. All kinds of digital elements can be added to your surroundings using computing devices. The two ways in which this has been implemented is, either as an application on the phone working in conjunction with the camera or as a heads up display (HUD) which is worn on the eyes.
Google Glass was an attempt to create a face mounted HUD which one would be able to wear at all times. It did not succeed because of the price and the paradigm shift that it presented. I felt that the way in which the camera on the system was being used, made the entire things seem very creepy.
AR is many folds more powerful than VR due to the spatial awareness. It introduces a whole new paradigm for advertisers. For instance, it is possible to create an app that scans any movie poster and begins to play the trailer of the movie. The same application can be built around various brand names and this leaves the door open to undertake interesting advertising campaigns. It is also possible to use it as a visualisation and sales tool; imagine being able to see what a sofa would look like in your living room before buying it.
Pokemon Go has shown that is possible to build extremely immersive gaming using AR.
The application of AR as an add-on to existing solutions like e-commerce apps is way more interesting that building an app which one wishes to hawk directly to the consumer. Why would you download an app whose only purpose is to scan movie posters and play trailers? But if Bookmyshow was to integrate it into their app, it makes for an additional way to engage with the application.
Off the startups that I have seen, too many of them are building solutions that they wish to sell directly to consumer. It is going to be incredibly difficult to acquire customers. I am yet to come across any startup going with an HUD approach.
10 years ago, the computing paradigm moved from the laptop towards the smartphone. It changed, the way business was done and the kind of business models that were possible. More importantly it moved software consumption from being a B2B heavy business to one that is more skewed towards B2C.
VR and AR will move the computing paradigms again. The hardware side of the solution is undergoing the process of definition. While the VR form factor seems like a head mounted display; nobody is quite sure how the final form factor would look life for AR. Nevertheless, there are several examples including Google Glass, that we can draw inspiration from.
In 2008, if you were developing smartphone apps, you were on the verge of discovering el-dorado. I believe the same is true today of VR and AR.
Having said that, it is important to understand the breadth of the market and opportunity in each of the case. Considering the nature of VR, I feel the market size for VR would be comparable to that of desktop computers. They may sell in the hundreds of Millions but the volumes may not be in the Billions. In other words, I see the possibility that every household and several businesses might buy it. It does not seem like a solution that would be bought by every single individual.
I still do not know what paradigm or form factor might perfectly suite AR. It can be implemented using phones but I suppose a dedicated HUD device will find a way. The application and utilisation of AR would be similar to the mobile phone. I believe that it would find its way into the hands of every individual, it would certainly sell in volumes that are similar to the smartphone.
If Pokemon Go is an example of the things to come, there is going to be much excitement in the future.
Drawing the battle lines
These technologies are not new; they have been around for decades. There has been much work and research that has gone into bringing it to the state of maturity today. More importantly, computing speeds were not high enough a couple of decades ago. This has fundamentally changed allowing AR and VR to blossom. Even with the increased computing speeds today, Oculus Rift has said that it will be a couple of years before they would be able to deliver the quality that they would consider the gold standard as far as VR is concerned. Its like running two monitors simultaneously and rendering graphics simultaneously and in concert. Not only does it take a great deal of computing, by extension it chews through a lot of battery.
As far as the big boys are concerned, they seem to be throwing their hats into the ring, making their bets.
Apple CEO Tim Cook mentioned on the call with analysts during the Q3’16 earnings call that Apple was indeed working on AR. Apple is making a strategic decision that AR is going to be an interesting space in the future. As with most things Apple, we may not know much about what is happening till time comes to launch the product. Also, Apple tends to wait till some of the others have launched their offerings and tested the market.
Microsoft has gone the AR route and put its weight behind the Microsoft Hololens. It remains to be seen when and at what price this product is brought into the market. The company has been able to already provide some impressive demonstrations of the product and shows several potential applications. Minecraft is going to be unbelievably great on AR and so will many games that adopt the platform.
Facebook had made a Billion-dollar acquisition of Oculus Rift. VR possibly suites Facebook better since they are in the business of content distribution. Apart from connecting individuals, a great deal of content is consumed through Facebook including a lot of videos. This may have been the factor that influenced the strategic choice that Facebook has made.
After the debacle of Google Glass, Google seems to have shut down the project and decided to go the VR way with Google VR. From a Youtube perspective, this makes a great deal of sense but not from a search perspective.
Companies such as Samsung and HTC have also been doing their own versions of VR. There is certainly a dearth of AR hardware play. For AR to be successfully deployed, an HUD is an important component to make the technology disappear. Having said that, Google Glass has shown that society might not be ready for this yet.
What form factor AR will take, is a question that still needs to be answered?
Are any of the startups up for the challenge?