At the beginning of last year, many industry analysts had expected that 2017 would be a big year for augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR). By mid-year, however, that expectation had at least partially dissolved as analysts saw a lull in the industry. Now, as the year ends, more companies are poised to release devices and applications soon, and the industry buzz is once again picking up.
VR technology continues to evolve, but this year the technology hit a point in its adoption cycle that appeared to indicate it was on the wane. Manufacturers have continued hardware improvements and price reductions to VR devices, but nevertheless, VR has yet to reach mass appeal. This is likely only temporary and due to a sort of “chicken and the egg” problem. That is, adoption of VR hardware requires compelling VR software, and software makers are somewhat hesitant to invest development dollars on a platform that hasn’t been fully adopted by the public, yet. This is not to say that VR headsets and software are not advancing or selling. It’s just not happening at a pace some early adopters had hoped at this point.
Hardware manufacturers have been focused on making their products more accessible and affordable to appeal to a broader market, and meanwhile, software manufacturers have made some strides. At E3 earlier this year, the number of VR, AR, and mixed reality exhibits doubled over last year. There wasn’t that much different to show with regards to VR hardware, but there were many more VR software developers exhibiting, so the lull noticed by some critics is not expected to last long. In fact, global revenues for the VR and AR markets are projected to increase by 100% over the next 4 years, and total spending on related products and services is expected to reach $215 billion in that time, up from $11 billion in 2017.
AR and mixed reality (Microsoft’s preferred term) continue to outpace VR development, and that is to be expected. The number of applications for these technologies continues to climb. Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo all plan to release mixed reality headsets that are designed to work with Windows 10. Microsoft is expected to release their HoloLens but has been quiet on the release date. This may be because they are also said to be working on mixed reality software experiences, and the development of those experiences is tied to the HoloLens, suggesting some fine-tuning may be in process. Meanwhile, Microsoft has just released the Windows 10 Fall Creator’s Update that includes features intended to enhance the mixed-reality experience and add support for several VR headsets. Apple, too, just released its latest mobile iOS with AR features incorporated into it, and they are expected to release a VR headset sometime in 2019. Just this October, Sony released the latest update to its PlayStation VR headset in Japan and is expected to release the same in the US soon.
At the start of 2017, the retail and manufacturing industries were expected to invest $400 million and $300 million, respectively, in AR-related development. We may have to wait until Feb 2018 to find out what the actual numbers were, but these estimates are likely to be close. Government, transportation, healthcare, and education markets are expected to heat up as the technology continues to improve. It is expected that by 2021, the majority of AR/VR spending will be intended for industrial maintenance.
According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, AR development at Boeing has targeted training, among other things, and “AR training has had a dramatic impact on the productivity and quality of complex aircraft manufacturing procedures. In one Boeing study, AR was used to guide trainees through the 50 steps required to assemble an aircraft wing section involving 30 parts. With the help of AR, trainees completed the work in 35% less time than trainees using traditional 2-D drawings and documentation. And the number of trainees with little or no experience who could perform the operation correctly the first time increased by 90%.”
The same article also mentions AR advancements in medicine, stating, “at the medical device company AccuVein, for instance, AR technology converts the heat signature of a patient’s veins into an image that is superimposed on the skin, making the veins easier for clinicians to locate. This dramatically improves the success rate of blood draws and other vascular procedures.”
AR is being applied in dentistry as well. For example, New Atlas, formerly Gizmag, reports that an AR app has been developed by Kapanu, a new startup company, to let patients see what they will look like with new teeth.
Despite these developments. the industry and its analysts still await the first VR and AR killer apps, and large firms like Apple, Sony, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are attempting to remedy that. It is expected that by 2021, mobile AR will be the industry driver. For that to happen, according to the Digi-Capital Blog: “there are 5 big challenges AR needs to conquer for mass consumers:
1. hero device (i.e. an Apple quality device, whether made by Apple or someone else)
2. all-day battery life
3. mobile connectivity
4. app ecosystem
5. telco cross-subsidization.”
Using a smartphone solves several of these problems. The only thing missing is the “hero device.” To that end, Apple and Samsung are said to be secretly working on smartphones with AR in mind. Their hope is that AR will become a new driver of smartphone sales.
2017 has proven to be a fruitful year for AR and VR development, though perhaps not at the level some had hoped. Nevertheless, development of these devices and software applications have been steadily increasing through the year. We the public may not always get the full picture of the industry status until company announcements are made, and that may give the illusion of a slowdown on occasion, but it looks like these technologies are here for the long haul. It’s probably safe to say that analysts will soon proclaim 2018 as a big year for AR and VR. I expect they’ll be right. Same in 2019. Same in 2020…