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When Apple introduced smartphones, it brought the internet into people's pockets. The mobile user interface changed the way we consumed content, and on-demand services were born.
Augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR) technology will have an equally transformative effect on how we consume content in our personal lives and at work, according to the industry experts I talk to. The plethora of screens we consult daily, from TVs and computers to smartphones and fitness bands, will be replaced by a single glass.
"Instead of buying a $300 TV, you will buy a $1 app on your XR glass and it will put the TV wherever you want in your house," Antony Vitillo, an AR/VR consultant and owner of The Ghost Howls blog, explained. Similarly, smartphones would become obsolete. Push notifications would display immediately in front of our eyes. An icon for incoming calls would appear before our eyes; answering would entail a wave of the hand or "gaze tracking" to pick up the call.
"Think of pilots using HUDs, [or heads-up displays], when they're flying," veteran IT consultant and self-described "serial entrepreneur" Vaclav Vincalek told me. HUDs present altitude, speed and fuel data via a transparent display in the pilots' helmets, allowing them to check everything with a single glance.
In a similar fashion, this technology could assist doctors performing surgery by showing them their patient's blood pressure, heart rate and other important metrics before and during the procedure.
Retail and industrial benefit from XR
But immersive, or extended reality (XR), technologies such as AR and VR use cases go beyond just seeing; they allow for interaction. One example where XR is poised to have a major impact is in retail.
"When customers can test out products in context, it increases their confidence in their purchase," said Eric Weber, chief experience officer of the mobile design and strategy agency Prolific Interactive. "The return rate for shoppers that use the augmented reality function is 22% lower than shoppers who don't use the tool and buy the same product." For the same reason, the technology enables selling higher-priced items that were previously perceived by customers as too risky to purchase online.
From the industrial perspective, XR improves performance as well as safety. "VR is great for prototyping and training, while AR is helping a lot of maintenance operators," Vitillo said. Bell Helicopter, for instance, designed its latest helicopter 10 times faster with the aid of VR.
Having an always-on AR/VR glass will not only alter how we work and transact, said Aaqib Usman, founder and CEO of interactive technology studio Midwest Immersive, the technology will augment our knowledge and memory. Everything we look at could be recognized digitally with object recognition technology, and the system can immediately present extra information about the images we're taking in. AR adds a layer of data that provides invaluable context.
On the other hand, if we forget something (e.g., our keys), the system can immediately help us since the camera has recorded it, an AI system can find it and the AR can show us where we left it.
What stands in the way
While potential AR and VR use cases abound, to fully exploit this transformative technology, a number of obstacles must be addressed. Chief among them are the devices themselves.
"In order to build seamless experiences like this, we need heavy computing power, which is difficult to get in smaller devices," Usman explained. Processing the rendering and computations on the devices requires sophisticated hardware, and that is hard to squeeze into small, cordless glasses.
The hope is that 5G technology will break this barrier. "Once 5G is completely in place, the hope is that we can offload the processing to the cloud and make devices in smaller form factors," Usman said.
How 5G will spur AR/VR improvements and adoption
Tuong Nguyen, analyst at Gartner, advised IT leaders think about immersive tech such as AR and VR as a user interface, "but one with considerably more depth and richness -- and driven by individual context."
Here is Nguyen's take on what 5G will bring to XR user interfaces:
- Network improvements -- like wider radio channels, carrier aggregation, etc. This will address the high demand on the network to deliver contextually relevant information.
- More bandwidth and higher spectrum efficiency -- compared to 4G.This is essential for delivering high-definition video and other content as well as 360-degree video.
- Higher network density -- or the ability to connect more things on the network. This feature is generally associated with IoT, smart cities, etc. Immersive experiences use many of these other technologies as part of the network of sensors that create a richer, more contextualized experience
- Energy efficiency. Think about how quickly your battery drains now while you do something as "simple" as watch a video or a movie. As you scale up the quality and amount of time you do this, it will naturally affect battery life, so improvements in energy efficiency will be welcome.
- Super low latency. This will make high-fidelity content more viable and makes the interaction more seamless regardless of the experience.
Other technical problems will have to be solved for AR and VR use cases to take hold.
"The relative slowness of the displays close to the user's eyes [can] cause nausea," said Joanan Hernandez, CEO and founder of Mollejuo AR Studio.
There are also software problems associated with AR.
"For AR to blend in with the surroundings smoothly, object-and scene-recognition algorithms must evolve further," explained Anastasia Yaskevich, enterprise mobility researcher at ScienceSoft, a software development company. "The way these algorithms work now is astonishing. Yet they still can't guarantee stable and reliable AR performance."
Still, optimism is high that AR and VR will be a transformative technologies -- sooner rather than later. The U.K. launched its 5G network, offering a testbed for the extent to which faster network speed will enable immersive interfaces. Companies are investing millions -- if not billions -- in AR and VR. Can enterprise adoption be far behind?
"Now is the time for CIOs and IT leaders to be proactive in determining how VR can enhance and optimize training, marketing, sales, communication and other processes within their companies," said web pioneer Halsey Minor, founder and CEO of Live Planet.
CIO advice on how 5G will pave way for AR and VR use cases