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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AR It’s All an Add

I’ve seen a lot of very hyped “visualizations” of what new next generation AR experiences will be like over the next few years, and one thing none of them are covering is how they’re dealing with the compositing of the augmented content with the reality content.  In a mixed reality mode, it’s pretty straight forward because the entire image is synthetic and the new content is simply comped “over” a live feed from a device camera. But with augmented content, light field, OLED, etc, the augmented content is  reflected, refracted or projected over the background, essentially compositing the new content as an add – and so effectively it exists like a reflection on a window.

Which is great – it’s a very useful and impressive thing, but it’s not generally what’s shown in the product marketing collateral. To their credit Epson shows the simulated images for their Moverio glasses as being somewhat transparent, and maybe because they are used to dealing more directly with imaging professionals. So what does this disconnect between the promise and the delivery mean? Well it might be that no one really notices – they may be so blown away by seeing aliens attack their living room that they don’t care that their floor lamps are visible through the enemy hordes. However, they might just as easily be left feeling that they’ve just watched an early B monster movie. Will the take away from the AR revolution, be that it’s nothing more than just tech hype, over promised and under delivered?

What troubles me here is that it would be very easy for the marketing videos to be pretty darned accurate to the actual display characteristics of the devices – just composite the elements on the video feed as an Add rather than an Over and you’d be very close (+- some error in trying to match luminosity, etc). But they don’t. They display it as though it’s an opaque element – and well … that does look better, it’s more realistic and ultimately presents a far more compelling experience. And the decision to present it inaccurately probably means they know how much better it looks. So they must be a bit worried about showing the reality of what’s really, currently available.  And if they’re worried I’m worried.

Composting in real time AR/MR experiences actually offers some really cool development opportunities – let’s hope people start taking those on soon.