Augmented reality and virtual reality appear to be having a moment -- for real this time. After numerous fits and starts in recent years, it now seems that these technologies are finally coming into their own.
In the early months of 2021, Facebook reportedly had 10,000 people -- one-fifth of its workforce -- working on AR and VR. ARHT Media had also staged a virtual meeting in September 2020 featuring holograms of three different people from three different countries, which, if nothing else, is a promising development for those of us suffering from Zoom fatigue during the coronavirus pandemic. And in March 2021, Microsoft Mesh made its debut, offering users of that company’s AR HoloLens and VR Windows Mixed Reality platform a shared space.
In other words, AR and VR, having long ago proven their worth beyond gaming, appear to be veering ever closer to the mainstream. And the expectation is that that will continue. Prescient & Strategic Intelligence predicts that the market size for these technologies, valued at $37 billion in 2019, will be $1.274 trillion by 2030, a robust compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 42.9 percent over the course of this decade.
AR/VR’s momentum is very much tied to that of 5G, which provides the faster speed and lower latency these technologies require -- and which is having a moment of its own. T-Mobile, declared “the next big thing” by Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research, has made particularly promising strides, launching the first standalone network in August 2020 and showing a superior downlink speed to those of its competitors, while working toward its goal of providing a nationwide 5G network by the end of 2021.
Sol Rogers, CEO/founder for the immersive content studio REWIND, sees this being the last great hurdle for AR and VR. As he wrote for Forbes in 2019, "5G will usher in the next era of immersive and cloud-connected experiences. Faster, more uniform data rates, lower latency and lower cost per bit will ensure it."
The caveat is that we have been fooled before when it comes to AR/VR. The hype, in fact, reached a crescendo in 2017, when VR enterprises multiplied in the wake of Facebook’s $3 billion purchase of Oculus three years earlier. But Google subsequently ditched its VR platform. VR headsets, found in 13 percent of American households in 2017, were present in just eight percent two years later.
The rebound, however, appears to have come. For one thing, the collaborative possibilities of AR/VR have been buoyed by recent social distancing norms. Spatial is one company that was addressing the issue even before the pandemic, empowering users to employ avatars -- which are created from users’ headshots -- to move about a virtual office space, a technology now available on Oculus Quest, Quest 2, and Nreal.
As for ARHT, it worked with the global healthcare company Novartis to enable academics from Australia, Greece and Germany to appear together for a symposium last September entitled “Asthma Trends and the Digital Health Solves.” And as ARHT CEO Larry O’Reilly told AVNetwork, such an approach was “way more engaging” than a Zoom call, as all three appeared to be in the same room, to the point of even having a panel discussion.
That same AVNetwork piece noted that anatomy students at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University use the HoloLens in classes in combination with HoloAnatomy software developed internally, to learn about the human body. It has proven to be so successful that those students engaged in remote learning during the pandemic have been shipped headsets, enabling lessons to continue.
The HoloLens can also be used as a “GPS for the surgeon,” according to Tom McGuiness, Microsoft’s executive vice president for healthcare, as evidenced by the fact that three doctors in Brazil helped walk a surgeon in France through a delicate shoulder procedure via the AR headset. Moreover, immersive video platforms can be used to prepare surgeons before they ever head into the operating room, courtesy of holographics like those used at Case Western. They can even introduce medical students to an OR ahead of time.
There is no shortage of other uses for AR/VR. These technologies can be used in shopping, for example, to picture how shoes might look on your feet. They can be used for workouts. They can even be used to relieve pain and anxiety.
Cost remains an issue to AR and VR becoming mainstream, as headsets alone can run as much as $800, and users might require other gadgetry as well. There is also some concern about the physical toll headsets can take -- temporary symptoms such as eyestrain, headache, etc. So let the buyer beware on both those counts.
Still, there is no denying that these technologies finally appear to be having their moment — thanks, in part, to the progress of 5G, the many practical uses of AR and VR, and the unique challenges caused by the pandemic.