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I have noticed that there’s an undertone (or perhaps worst kept secret) of partisanship over how immersive tech is described, who it’s meant for, and how its concepts are communicated or exchanged, not just between business and consumer, but also business to business. What’s apparent is each big spatial computing player trying to carve out their interpretation of what the future of immersive tech means and looks like. Microsoft has gone all in with their home-brewed “mixed reality” paradigm; Magic Leap dreams of the Magicverse/metaverse; and most other industry heavyweights, manufacturers and middle-ware vendors have adopted the common tongue so-to-speak by sticking with the notion of “AR≈VR: The rest is just details.” Lately, I’m seeing the long-used term “xR” – with variable x used to encompass AR/VR/MR/etc. – being supplanted by uppercase “XR” which stands for “Cross Reality/Realities”. It’s enough to make your head spin with everyone trying to enshrine inventor’s credentials into Wikipedia. I’ll stick with xR for now in this article.
According to a Feb 2019 report by Zion Market Research, the global value of the Virtual and Augmented Reality markets are projected to reach $814.7 billion USD by 2025, so there’s a huge incentive for industry giants to establish their respective verticals first, and with it, install their de facto protocols, IP, licensing, lexicon, channels, etc. before the competition. Those efforts are coming at the expense of consumer friendliness and adopt-ability. xR is expensive technology and the community stewards and purveyors of access to this inevitable future are concentrated in a small, privileged circle (at least in Toronto from what I’ve seen). The have-nots are being priced out of the conversation completely. Worse yet, the same elite circles don’t share a common vision and have seemingly splintered into different factions with their own unique identities and xR promotional messaging.
However, the greatest long-term harm is being done by the cash-grabbers literally preying on wide-eyed consumers through marketing hype and outlandish promises. This consumer hype eventually turns to consumer apathy once the novelty wears off. How’s that 3D television working out? I wouldn’t be surprised to see this current wave of xR tech (what wave is this anyway? 2nd, 3rd?) die in the consumer space, leaving government, military, health and enterprise initiatives to be the domains of innovation and application for years to come. Disclaimer: The single standout consumer success story that comes to mind is the Pokemon Go game.
Speaking of consumer applications, I’ve had some limited time playing with an HTC Vive, the Magic Leap headset and lately, Facebook’s new Oculus Quest. Each left me with feelings of excitement plus disappointment (“Ah okay, there’s the catch”), despite my earnest desire to be convinced I was about to witness the future of immersion. Spoiler alert: that utopia of seamlessly-mixed physical and digital realms is still 5-10 years away. For one, I still believe the goal of a mass-adopted, consumer-driven immersive world will never be realized with head mounted displays, goggles, visors, or basically anything that asks us to engage a physical glass interface (or what I call “portal-based” interfaces #WikipediaCredit). Once you are presented with – or made obvious you’re donning – an interface to an xR experience, then you necessarily know you can exit just as easily, too. This enter/exit signaling to our brain is counter-intuitive to fluid and ubiquitous immersion. The brain isn’t being fooled into believing the images are sharing the same space, it just knows it’s being presented a clever camera trick that it can turn off when the experience expires, and the critical suspense of disbelief is never effectively achieved. A lot of this failure is probably due to creators’ newness to the medium of spatial computing canvasses. Most experience creators seem to forgo less-is-more because they’re for the most part techies that want to push every whizz-bang digital effect on the interface palette. I’m not going to suspend my disbelief if the digital character or object I’m interacting with just materialized from a cloud of laser lights and sparkles. Nobody and no thing materializes like that. Immersive tech needs more time in the hands of artists, not programmers… and artists need more and easier access to xR hardware and software.
The immersive tech space could take a lot of lessons from the AI business. Smart assistants have made it into the public consciousness with nary an ad or piece of consumer literature mentioning “reinforced learning”, “visual computing”, or “generative adversarial networks”. How did these super cutting-edge technologies that power smart speakers, personal assistants and face ID systems integrate so seamlessly into our everyday lives with little friction, now existing quite transparently and helpfully alongside our daily habits? (rhetorical question). Meanwhile, the AR/VR industry can’t even agree on what language to speak between themselves. Charlie Fink, a former Disney exec, spoke about this “democratization” of knowledge at Augmented World Expo presentation in 2018. The future of xR in the consumer space doesn’t depend on whether it’s called augmented reality, mixed reality, cross reality or 3D-amazeballs reality. It depends on getting it into the hands and lives of as many people as possible, as quickly and cheaply as possible. Easy to say, right!? The truth is xR hardware is very resource intensive and they’re unable to depend on cloud supercomputing power to compute and display visuals in real-time on a phone, tablet or head-mounted goggles. The bandwidth and computing power just isn’t there yet for a holy-grail-esque experience with inconspicuous, untethered, comfortable wearable. It’s still portal-based but at least its potential for achieving critical consumer adoption is no worse off than the average glasses-wearer’s appetite for buying new specs. Those who don’t wear – or swear off of – spectacles for various reasons will have to wait for a non-portal-based solution. That may be in the form of contact lenses, visual implants or hoping that external 3D projection technology is due to make some leaps and bounds of its own.
The future of immersive tech in the consumer space looks grim. The advancements in optics, portability, battery life, on-board computing, etc. are impressive but aren’t nearly enough to satisfy even minimum expectations in ergonomics, cost and accessibility. Location-based installations like VR arcades (many of them government funded because “Innovation! The City of the Future!”) continue to pop up, but just as quickly close down a year later once they saturate the neighbourhood’s curiosity. It’s like bungee jumping: “Sure, I’ll plop down $30 to try it. Wow! Okay that was clever stuff! Again? Umm no thanks, I get it.”
My vision for Playmaas hopes to realize the potential for a seamless immersive entertainment experience that blurs the divide more effectively: characters that inhabit your world, not the other way around; no harsh entry/exit cues; visuals that lend themselves to believable actions; and most importantly, created with an artist’s touch.
observer, talker, general provoker