Illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev/Intelligencer; Faces: Ksenia Bravo/iStock/Getty Images
Five years ago, virtual reality was the future, and augmented reality was a joke. Virtual reality — tech that places small screens in front of your eyes, blocking out the outside world and creative an immersive digital world for you to explore — was suddenly white-hot, with Facebook spending $2 billion to acquire VR headset company Oculus in 2014 and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey appeared on the cover of Time with a rapturous cover story about why VR was “about to change the world.”
Meanwhile, Google Glass, the torch bearer for augmented reality — overlaying the world via either a smartphone or smart glasses with digital information — was an expensive embarrassment, thanks to cringeworthy stunts like tech evangelist Robert Scoble taking a picture of himself wearing his Google Glasses in the shower or a bevy of stories about “glassholes” refusing to take off their Glasses and being kicked out of restaurants and bars. By 2015, Google officially stopped supporting Google Glass, and augmented reality seemed like it had stalled out.
I counted myself among the the major believers of VR, after getting a press preview of the HTC Vive in 2015. I put the helmet on my head and found myself standing on the deck of a sunken ship, the surface of the ocean glittering over my head like the roof of a cathedral as a blue whale glided above me, covering me in shadow. I had a sense of awe, of being very tiny in the presence of something very large, and the very clear thought: I could live here.
Four years later, and I’m not so sure I want to live in the world of VR. Headsets designed for virtual reality get sweaty and are awkward to wear if you need glasses. Motion sickness is relatively common. Thanks to an obscure optometrical problem of “vergence-accommodation conflict,” your eyes get tired trying to square the circle of focusing on things that appear to be far away but in reality are just being displayed on screens centimeters away from your eyeballs. I have a PlayStation VR headset at home, but it mostly collects dust, brought out once or twice a year for an interesting new game and then stuffed away again like a very expensive velveteen rabbit.
Meanwhile, AR is suddenly experiencing a resurgence in interest and innovation. Thanks to strong support from both iOS’s ARkit and Android’s ARCore, the smartphone has suddenly become a place for app developers to experiment in new ways with a device that nearly every American carries in their back pocket.
I’m not alone in being bullish on AR and bearish on VR. A Digi-Capital survey companies in November of 2018 found a substantial enthusiasm gap between AR and VR, with mobile AR being important to 76 percent of those surveyed, while VR garnered just 65 percent of interest.
What companies and investors are catching onto is the vast difference in the potential uses of VR versus AR. What I and so many others experienced the first time putting on a VR headset was the outside world disappearing and new one opening up in front of our eyes. It makes VR ultimate in immersive entertainment. But that’s also it’s limiting factor — VR seems likely to only be something used for entertainment.
Compared to VR, the first time AR clicked for me was much more prosaic. I wasn’t standing on the deck of a sunken ship, but wandering the aisles of Home Depot, buying a header board for a set of new doors we were installing in our daughter’s nursery. Thanks to iOS 12 putting the Measure app in as a default app, I was able to quickly pull out my phone and double check the lumber I was about to buy would fit in the tight space.
Meanwhile, Google Glass has quietly relanched for enterprise customers, being used by companies like ACGO, a manufacturer of large-scale agricultural equipment that uses Google Glasses in its factories and during field calls. Microsoft’s Hololens smart glasses remain far too expensive for consumer use, but businesses are happy to pay the cost, and are being used by Volvo engineers as they design new cars to test for aerodynamics. On the consumer side, a demo of how AR could be used in combination with Google Maps was one of those moments in tech where you see a glimpse of the future and want it to just be here already.
This isn’t to say AR is all work and no play — if you have an iPhone 6s or newer, check out the very charming game ARise for an example of how AR can allow for some very different and very fun gameplay. But where VR seems to have stalled out as just a way to play games, AR seems to just be finding its feet as something that can provide real utility.
It’s that combination of engaging and actually helpful that makes AR’s future seem much brighter than VR. As more and more phones are able to use AR, and better AR apps will create interesting new use cases, smartphones will quickly become a way to open up a windowpane of digital information and entertainment in front of us. And with Apple slowly hiring up most of the talent in AR, smart glasses that the everyday consumer will actually buy and use seem like something we’ll see in the next decade.
Put another way, VR increasingly seems like the original Nintendo — an amazing combination of hardware and software that fundamentally changed how many people spent their freetime. But AR, with its ability to be both ubiquitous and useful, seems more and more like the smartphone, a combination of hardware and software that changed how we lived.