What contests are we winning?

Talking with people in the AR/VR world there’s a constant, silly question buzzing in the air like a gnat? “Who’s winning – VR or AR?”. It is an interesting question, not for what the question is asking but what asking it implies in the first place. Is this all a contest? With a winner and a loser? Have we become so obsessed with the “gamified marketplace of ideas” that we can’t actually be motivated without some implicit or explicit conflict or large plush prize? But what even is the conflict? What is there to lose in this contest of AR v VR?

The contest implies they are the same project, suggesting that their finish lines are the same finish line. They are drawing upon a lot of the same technology for sure, but so are mobile phones, connected thermostats, smart TVs and watches. The basic antagonism seems to revolve around posturing –  for the best head mounted display, or the most pure vision of what is meant by “immersive” or “reality”, or who is the reigning champ of the “ultimate experience”. And this would all be as ludicrous a sideshow as it sounds, except for the number and stature of people involved on both “sides” who act like it’s a serious debate. In fact it was an actual debate at this year’s Augmented World Expo, and only a marginally tongue in cheek one.

And I get how important it is for one hardware maker to be able to capture market share, get funding or get acquired. Or for a game publisher to drum up marketing collateral to prep for a release. What’s a little bothersome is how easily this marketing spun copy is eaten up by people who should know better and then regurgitated as a real, pressing issue, when the real pressing issue is that people need to move past the towel snapping and make more complete things that are actually worth doing.

Manufacturers of HMDs want to demonstrate that each has the better display resolution, the better optics, better hardware integration – this makes perfect sense. It’s like competing computer chip makers claiming theirs is best because of clock speed, number of cores or instruction sets – it’s reasonable.   The differences in comfort, tradeoffs between configurability and convenience, and comparable aesthetics are like the PC v Mac debate – okay, I get that. Arguing whether VR or AR  will “win”, or is “better”, is like someone arguing that a realtime, embedded OS is inherently better than an interactive one like Windows, or that a freight train is better than a cargo ship.

If we take the crassly entrepreneurial measure of money – then AR has already “won”. It has market share, it’s profitable in products now, it generates revenue. But really, it’s a silly debate – we’ve been augmenting and virtualizing reality for years : the transistor radio, books, air freshener, hell even the rearview mirror. Timothy Leary is laughing at us all right now because he “won” the contest 50 years ago – and without a computer. So what should you do when someone asks you “who will win AR or VR?”– I think I know what Dr Leary would do.


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Over 20 years of experience in creative/technical supervision and design in Visual Effects, Feature Animation and Scientific Visualization.

4 thoughts on “What contests are we winning?”

  1. Regarding your comment on this post in Facebook. I think you can make images darker in a pair of AR glasses so that your CG overlay doesn’t have to compete with the ambient brightness. If you selectively polarize the lens on a pixel by pixel basis you can make any part of the lens opaque.

    1. On glasses that could be done -the comment was about retinal projection displays. My point was that photons are always additive – so there will always be some amount of transparency. You could perhaps put some LCD opacity shading in the glasses that go over the retinal projectors – I wonder how well the two would register.

      1. There was a very interesting bit of research that NVidia showed at SIGGRAPH a couple of years back involving lightfield display. This wasn’t a projected lightfield, but one on a slide (think of a microlensed display rather than a microlensed sensor). You held it up right in front of your eye and there was a 500×500 image that you could refocus through, no special “close up” lenses in front of it, and it was 1/8″ think. It seems that with some LCD backplane for opacity masking, that when the resolution of OLED panels becomes high enough to put 16+ micro sub-pixels behind each microlensed pixel, we’d have a focus through display with alpha. Why the best part of SIGGRAPH is often the Emerging Technologies expo.

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