Are There Killer Apps for AR and VR?

Restless grumblings are rocking the virtual reality (VR) world. Previous rose-colored projections are undergoing hasty revisions as disappointing VR hardware sales reports trickle in. We’re shocked that folks don’t like putting stuff on their heads that completely blind them, forcing them to grope around to find the controllers, bumping into walls or furniture, and looking like complete idiots to anyone peeking in. And these are just a few of VR’s mass consumer adoption problems.

Augmented reality (AR), on the other hand, seems to be becoming a thing without consumers even realizing it. Since AR is mostly software, consumers don’t need to know it even exists to adopt it. It’s just another cool thing their smartphone does.

For instance, a commercial for Star Wars AR Stickers played during the movie pre-show for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. While AR apps have begun popping up for both Android and Apple iOS (thanks to the recent release of Google’s and Apple’s respective ARCore and ARKit AR SDKs), this is the first mass consumer AR marketing effort I’ve seen.

While VR stumbles along toward more limited enterprise and industrial adoption, this first wave of AR apps could signal its mainstreaming—but not necessarily its killer app.

AR’s Looming Success

Both AR and VR hold the promise of delivering a new function that results in experiences consumers can’t live without. In other words: killer apps.

Given the coming flood of clever AR apps for both Android and iOS, AR might be closer to discovering its killer app than VR. But while compelling like a shiny new toy, the current spate of Android and iOS AR apps are, generally, too frivolous (yes, I’m looking at you, recently revamped Pokémon Go and Instagram) to make a major, permanent impact on mass societal behavior.

Counterintuitively, AR’s first significant impact may be as a marketing tool.

The most fascinating AR applications are likely to enhance real estate selling, self-guided tours and, especially, shopping. One of the more intriguing AR applications comes from Ikea and its Ikea Place AR app. The Swedish maker of unpronounceable home furnishings has created an app that allows users to virtually place products in a potential buyer’s space to get an impression of how the furniture or other elements will appear.

Amazon also has launched a similar AR View shopping app for iOS, as has Target with its “See It In Your Space” portion of its mobile web site (which has not gotten great reviews). You can bet other retailers jump on the virtual AR shopping bandwagon lickety split.

Just as Apple’s Newton was a not-ready-for-prime-time harbinger of PDAs and smartphones, it’s not difficult to envision a time when we’ll all be wearing more sophisticated and user-friendly versions of Google Glass. Rumors are already swirling about a potential Apple AR wearable, and early next year, Vusix will start selling the Blade AR glasses, “the first pair of smart glasses that allow individuals to leave their phone in their pocket while presenting location-aware content connected through the user’s phone.”

Longer VR Killer App Timeline

While AR seems on its way to changing the way the world shops, VR’s path to a society-altering tech is likely to require more time and improved technology.

For instance, virtual tourism and staycations—being able to travel to places that time, age, physical capability or finances may otherwise inhibit—hold promise. But even 4K video is insufficient to satisfyingly render 360-degree video of real world locales. Much 360-degree VR video looks barely better than VHS. One-on-one VR applications such as remote expertise consulting (i.e. tech support), therapy, telepresence and training also are intriguing VR avenues.

These are all tantalizing, but we think the eventual breakthrough will be something like this: You-are-there shared live experiences, aka virtual presence.

Currently, VR is mostly a solitary experience—just you wandering around a lonely computer-generated or 360-degree video world devoid of other humans (virtual or otherwise). But the promise of VR is shared experiences, placing you with other virtual visitors. These experiences could be akin to, but less tactile, present or permanent, as Tron or The Matrix. These shared live experiences could combine aspects of both AR and VR.

VR already allows users to be virtually placed in front row seats to live sporting events, concerts, political rallies and other large gatherings. The NBA already hosts VR game viewings (albeit not live, which is still too technically challenging), and NASCAR, the NHL and MLB are all dipping their athlete’s feet into VR.

But this so-far limited VR spectating is still essentially just you and the event. There’s no way to virtually high-five the person sitting next to you the way you would if you were really there.

Personal shared experiences are potentially more emotionally and viscerally compelling, such as virtually attending family events—birthday parties, weddings, reunions, confirmations and bar-mitzvahs, even funerals—when otherwise physically unable.

Efforts to create shared VR spaces have already begun. There are shared Facebook Spaces, Oculus Rooms and YouTube VR Chat environments, and an outfit called AltspaceVR is figuratively and literally dabbling in the shared experience space. But these all are avatar-based virtual worlds, not you virtually present in the real world. Combined AR/VR virtual presence—or “collaboration in another dimension”—is one of the performance goals of the new Flash Gordon-like Magic Leap One AR goggles.

The concept of shared live VR experiences will get a boost from Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which opens next March 30 and in which VR plays a central role. But the events in RPO take place in a quarter century from now, and so might set unrealistic VR expectations for current consumers. It might take that long to work out the far higher resolution, solutions for greater processing demands, more robust connectivity, and friendlier industrial design and pricing necessary to bring these VR shared experiences killer apps to real life.