A battle is brewing for your heart and soul — and your eyes. In one corner is Augmented Reality — AR. In the other, Virtual Reality – VR. My money is on AR, but I have been wrong before (see predictions on crypto).
Let’s understand the difference in hardware, software and philosophy between AR and VR, and why I think that, at the end of the day, AR will prove to be more useful and adopted.
In a well designed and implemented AR system, content will be available to users in a way that supplements or augments the real world. The best example would be some variant on the Google Glass model — you know, those high tech glasses that made you look like — well, a glasshole. A more sophisticated (and more modern) application would look like, and perform like regular eyeglasses in terms of fit, size, style and weight — hopefully with at least an all day battery life. While near term implementations would make the smart glasses the display for the adjacent smartphone, if the glasses get smart enough, the phone could be dispensed with entirely. For greater utility, the glasses would be photochromic — clear indoors and sunglasses outdoors. Another essential feature would be stealthiness — neither the sounds from the built in headphones nor the display should be capable of being observed or captured by third parties. Sort of like being in your own little world, while being in the regular world. Or, Augmented Reality.
The advantage of this kind of setup is that the glasses take the display currently on the phone and moves it to where it really needs to be — continuously within your field of vision. I say continuously for both good and bad reasons. There is some information you want to see immediately — maybe texts, alerts, etc., and some you want to be immersed in like videos, sports, etc. So the hardware and software will have to strike the appropriate balance, and provide safeguards to prevent that douche in the Ferrari from driving at 110 while logging into some asian porn site. It’s all about balance. But I must admit, being able to get driving/walking directions in my actual field of view (displayed over the street itself and not a map of the street) is pretty cool.
With greater sophistication, hand gestures can take the place of finger swipes for input, selection, etc. A virtual keyboard could be displayed in front of the user, and they could type in the air. Or something else. Do I look like a software engineer?
One of the promises of Augmented Reality is the ability to put virtual objects into the real world. Think Pokémon GO or things like that. First person shooter games could be played in a physical world.
Other uses are a mixed bag of great utility and terrifying invasion of privacy. You walk into a party and as you scan the room the camera in the glasses captures images of faces, and displays on your glasses the names of the patrons, their social media or bios, how you might be connected to them, and how you may have interacted with them in the past. Great for people like me who often have to pretend that they remember someone (“um, yeah….honey, this is…um…”) The idea of having an always-on camera right on my face is both useful and scary, and once it becomes ubiquitous, that sound you will hear will be the death knell of privacy. Or the last gasp.
But all told, it would still be cool to be able to multitask while in a meeting without it being obvious. It might make the cell phone, laptop, desktop, keyboard and mouse all unnecessary. The North glasses (absorbed by Alphabet) had a useful ring navigation device which seemed pretty cool. More data. More connection. More biometrics. What could go wrong, amirite?
On the other end of the spectrum is VR. You know, those giant glasses you wear over your eyes that immerse you into a virtual world. Things like Oculus Meta, HP Reverb, or HTC Vive. These devices eschew the ability to see the “real” world and plunge their users into a virtual world — or a “metaverse.” They can interact with others in this virtual world in a more natural way — on virtual roads, buildings, etc. These virtual worlds will become photorealistic and potentially indistinguishable from a “real” street, building, etc. Take the red pill. In a VR world, one can see the grand canyon in the morning, the sistine chapel in the afternoon, and pilot the USS Kelvin at night.
I honestly don’t know the future of this kind of metaverse, but I do know that many high tech companies — including Meta — are investing heavily in various iterations of it. To me, who grew up in the generation when parents sent kids out to play in the streets until nightfall without supervision (and we loved it — at least those of us who survived) the idea of sitting around with that kind of headset on my face and interacting with others that way seems stifling and weird. But to others it might seem freeing and enabling. For now, I just want to get my messages and emails. OK Boomer.
Which brings me to my final point. Both AR and VR are immersive and transformative technologies which increase the link to and dependence on networks and technologies. As a result, before we go down either path we must make damned sure that we understand the moral, ethical, privacy, and autonomy concerns as well as the security and authentication concerns for the use of these technologies. If we get it right, it can be pretty cool. If not, we are stuck in a virtual nightmare of our own creation. And the only way to win is not to play the game.
Mark Rasch is an attorney and author of computer security, Internet law, and electronic privacy-related articles. He created the Computer Crime Unit at the United States Department of Justice, where he led efforts aimed at investigating and prosecuting cyber, high-technology, and white-collar crime.