Alternate realities have historically dominated fact and fiction. From the use of augmented and virtual realities in air combat training to sci-fi stories and novelistic tales of looking into a crystal ball, these surrogate realities have often helped humankind operate better or cope with the harsh truths of the real world.
Stepping into the future, we can see virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies becoming commonplace in our daily lives. The combined market for AR and VR headsets is expected to grow tenfold from 2021 through 2028, and for the future yet to come, AR could potentially replace that one gadget that our lives depend on so much — our smartphones.
Admittedly, the future of the internet — and how it envelops our lives — will not advance in a straight line. But the astounding overuse of buzzwords (such as the metaverse) reflects the growing intrigue surrounding immersive experiences. Looking at screens no longer makes us tick as it used to, and we now want to indulge in and perceive our surroundings through the extension of reality. Technologies such as AR and VR can satisfy this desire to either augment our existing reality or escape into a more comforting one.
Why AR (and not VR) is the best smartphone replacement
Although both AR and VR manipulate our vision and psyche similarly, virtual reality experiences are much more immersive and deliver us into an entirely new realm. This exposure can be exhilarating at first but can eventually become alienating as it disconnects us from the real world. Additionally, because VR experiences shut out our actual reality completely, thereby confusing our senses, they can be nauseating if used for long periods.
Meanwhile, augmented reality bridges the disconnect between reality and a continuous VR experience. As the name suggests, augmented reality only supplements our experience with the real world through additional information that may not be readily available. This enriches our imagination without withdrawing us from the reality that we exist and live in.
We can already use our smartphones or tablets to probe our surroundings. For instance, we can point our smartphone cameras at food menus or road signs in foreign languages to translate them using apps such as Google Lens. We can also learn about the surrounding buildings and streets, or get step-by-step navigation with Google Maps or Apple Maps.
Even though VR can be equally entertaining, helpful, or impressive as AR, the latter appears to be a more prospective successor to our smartphones. We list some more reasons supporting this argument below.
Convenience of use
An AR headset is light and easy to wield as it only adds some aspects to the real world instead of having to create an entirely new virtual realm. Secondly, the quality of graphics from an AR headset is not particularly bound in terms of the display’s resolution because we still see the real world in all its glory. Because the display on an AR headset must render and process fewer elements, it can rely on less demanding hardware (or even a smartphone) for its processing needs. Therefore, most AR headsets are available as a pair of glasses.
In fact, companies such as Oppo and Qualcomm have projected AR headsets to be extensions of smartphones. While that seems accurate for the coming years, positioning AR headsets in our lives in place of smartphones appears to be the more natural course of evolution — even if we’re a few years off from that happening.
In the U.S. alone, almost 200 million people wear glasses for corrected vision, as per the Vision Council of America, while global usage stands at over two billion. These statistics testify that humankind has an intimate relationship with glasses — and has had that for several centuries.
In general, people tend to gravitate toward products that are familiar to them, and this familiarity with glasses can potentially be a significant driving force for the adoption of AR glasses. In comparison, VR remains relatively exclusive to enthusiasts and professionals who use it for gaming, experiencing the multiverse, or learning. As of 2020, the number of AR users was reported to be nearly 1.5 times that of VR, and the gap is expected to broaden over the coming years.
One of the most significant contributors to the use of AR — even without dedicated AR glasses — are filters on social media apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, etc. As we approach a future with deeper penetration of AR, we can expect our social interactions to be significantly enriched by the use of AR.
Wouldn’t it be exciting to hear someone’s name in a social setting just once and not forget it because your AR glasses remember it and flash it in front of your eyes without the other person even knowing? That’s what an evolution from smartphones to AR glasses could enable.
Your daily surroundings, amplified
Besides the growth of technologies such as AR and VR, we can expect machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (A.I.) to prosper over the coming years. Assuming A.I. does not become sentient and conquer the world, computer vision is only expected to improve in the near future. With this advancement, the likelihood of A.I. analyzing the world on our behalf as we glance at it through our AR glasses is exceptionally high.
As Nvidia notes, computer vision — also known as video intelligence — can be used to identify objects, faces, gestures, poses, and the general optical flow. Coupled with cloud computing, computer vision can become widely available and reasonably economical for companies to implement on their AR glasses.
Just imagine being able to witness the world like Iron Man! With AR glasses becoming part of our lives, humanity will attain a superpower that phones may never be able to replicate.
Big tech’s growing interest in AR
Evidence suggests that almost everything Apple touches becomes as hot as gold. The rumored AR headset by Apple is expected to arrive in “late 2024,” but its interest in the technology can likely drive the entire smartphone industry on an entirely new path. As per celebrated Apple analyst Ming Chi-Kuo, Apple even plans to replace the iPhone with AR glasses in the next ten years. That seems to be highly plausible given the growth of technology.
Even before Apple, we see lesser common brands such as Oppo demonstrating the use case of AR glasses as extensions to smartphones. Just replace the smartphone with processing on the cloud, and we should have a standalone AR headset tailored to tie you to a walled garden.
Simultaneously, Meta’s AR glasses might hit the shelves months before Apple. Considering the company has a very successful portfolio of Oculus VR headsets, its success with augmented reality and metaverse experiences is nearly guaranteed.
And even though the Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens may have been early to the market, the companies’ expertise with computer vision will empower them to offer AR experiences integrated with the most used operating systems in the world — Android and Windows.
Problems that AR glasses won’t solve
AR will likely dominate our social and personal lives substantially in the future, but problems associated with smartphones today could also pass across to future technologies. People might expect and experience the same “dopamine rush” that phones are said to supply. Zoning out or selectively blocking certain aspects of reality might be more accessible, while retreating from a convincingly objective reality may become more complex than simply pressing the power button on our smartphones.
At the same time, there are significant challenges in front of engineers that develop time-tested AR glasses. Mapping and calibrating AR to be accurate might require an extensive infrastructure of sensors and superfast wireless networks. The best way to solve this problem will be to establish a pervasive machine-to-machine (M2M) mesh network in which every machine or gadget interacts with every other device. Not just that, every physical object, building, and perhaps even natural elements in the world will have to be supplemented with sensors. This way, every device will broadcast its information instead of the AR glasses having to detect and identify objects in their surroundings. That itself will be a mammoth task. Meanwhile, security and privacy concerns open up another can of worms we don’t have time to dive into.
Lastly, eliminating biases in A.I. will be one of the significant challenges that engineers will have to tackle. Unlike humans, computers do not inherently know and experience emotions. Teaching them to judge and, more importantly, respect human values will be an arduous task.