Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have come out of nowhere to become ‘the next big thing’.
With the failure of Google Glass as an augmented reality platform for consumers, the seeming success of the Oculus Rift as a gaming-based virtual reality platform, and the weird novelty of Microsoft HoloLens as a resurgence in the augmented reality realm, it can be hard to understand the scope, purpose, and worth of these new ‘worn on the head devices’.
- Are they toys?
- Are they the ‘next big thing’?
- How could these directly impact my bottom line?
- Can they add efficiency to current day to day work across an enterprise?
- Is this VR / AR stuff even worth paying any attention to?
- How did these things rise up and become a multi-billion dollar business, when I just seem them as weird head mounted toys?
VR and AR – A History
Everything starts with MEMS. MEMS stands for Micro Electromechanical Systems. MEMS allowed for the at-scale manufacturing of tiny, easily integrated, highly accurate, and super cheap sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes.
These MEMS based sensors can fit within a housing that is no larger than a chip on a tiny motherboard. The sensors are super accurate, and easily integrated into anything with a breadboard. The first consumer breakthrough MEMS device is the accelerometer within the Wii Remote from Nintendo. An accelerometer can measure the relationship of the sensor to gravity, meaning an accelerometer can tell you if you are moving up (i.e. negative acceleration to gravity) or moving down (i.e. positive acceleration to gravity). As Nintendo found out, this is all you need to create a multi-billion dollar home gaming business and revive your whole business.
Technology moves on from the Nintendo Wii game console and the simple accelerometer. Soon we have MEMS based gyroscopes that could do more than measure the relationship of the sensor to gravity, but could measure the relationship of the sensor to all spatial dimensions. We have super small magnetometers which can measure the relationship of the device to the true magnetic North Pole of the Earth. Barometers which can be used to measure air pressure and hence altitude. GPS sensors which can measure the latitude / longitude / time / altitude of the device using the Global Positioning System. Soon, you get the iPhone 5 that incorporates all of these sensors, and the Apple CoreMotion and CoreLocation iOS app frameworks, which allow any iOS app developer to discover and log the relationship of an iPhone to all of these real-world spatial dimensions, by regulating, smoothing, and aggregating input from all those sensors in real time for easy in-app consumption.
All of this using sensors that cost less than $10 to make and are as easy as soldering their dangling pins to a motherboard.
In addition to sensor technology, we also have the ARM and SOC (System On a Chip) revolution. ARM Holdings is an intellectual property and design company that produces simple, low-power chip plans. ARM happily toils away shipping out amazingly fast, super low-power, instruction set, and chip designs that anyone can purchase off the shelf and manufacture. ARM doesn’t make the chips, they are just masters of chip and instruction set design. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the ARM revolution comes full force. Suddenly we have Apple, Nokia, and Samsung taking these ARM designs off the shelf and starting to manufacture super cheap, low power, super fast, highly efficient full systems on a chip.
Those ARM SOCs start to make their way into hugely profitable smartphones. The high margin of smartphones relative to their cost cause a virtuous cycle of ARM SOC manufacturing improvements + cost reduction + ARM design improvements. Suddenly, we have all this high-end sensor and CPU power at super low-energy cost and monetary cost. It is now that we can put high-end ARM hardware + high-end sensor packages into the tiniest of shells with off-the-shelf battery power. Through the natural cycles of profitability driving innovation, we are at the point where we can incorporate actual supercomputers into the smallest of form factors. Even wearables.
At the same time as we are getting all this high-end ARM CPU and high-end super low form factor sensor packages, we get the capacitive touch revolution and the blue LED revolution. Now we can also create screens that sip power and are instantly relatable via the human power of touch.
On the side as part of the SOC revolution we also get the PowerVR line of high-end graphics chips which sip power and have a full hardware accelerated 3D API via OpenGL and DirectX.
It is from the shoulders of PowerVR 3D chips, all those MEMS sensors, LED screens, the ARM SOC revolution, and the virtuous cycle of aggregation + capitalization via the smartphone, that we now have a platform from which to go at full head mounted wearables, which are viable for early adopters to experience virtual reality and augmented reality applications.
The first round of these head mounted wearables falls into 2 camps:
- Virtual Reality (VR)
- Augmented Reality (AR)
Virtual reality works off the basis that the only thing the user can see and hear are the outputs of the virtual reality device. No outside stimulus is meant to enter the user experience.
Augmented reality works off the basis that the user needs their real world sensory experience augmented with virtual data and graphics. The scope of human vision while using an augmented reality device is meant to be completely real world, while in real time a digital overlay will be presented into the main sensory experience of the user.
The current mainstream implementation of virtual reality exists in the following major consumer products:
- Google Cardboard
- Samsung Gear VR
- Oculus Rift
Google Cardboard is exactly what the name implies. It is just a simple cardboard (yes, just cardboard) mount for a smartphone.
The primary use of Google Cardboard is to present stereoscopic, 360 degree / spherical, video.
There are existing SDKs for Android and iOS which allow easy division of a smartphone screen for stereoscopic viewing of a specially created 360-degree video.
360-degree videos are easily created using special multi-camera rigs that film the full sphere of a given location. Software tools then aggregate the input from all the cameras on the rig into a single video. The single video is then projected onto a smartphone screen using special 3D spherical transforms with the 3D support of a PowerVR chip. 360-degree video playback is augmented further by aggregating the all the gyroscope, accelerometer and other position sensors present on a cellphone, to make the user feel immersed in the environment of the 360-degree / VR video.
Almost any smartphone can provide a VR experience for a user via Google Cardboard. It is simple canned video playback, with a few 3D tricks, to make the filmed environment seem more real to the user.
Samsung Gear VR ups the ante just a little over the Google Cardboard experience by providing a more dynamic experience than just a canned 360-degree video.
The ultimate VR experience is the Oculus Rift. Oculus Rift is a full division within Facebook.
The Oculus Rift completely shields the user from the real world via a full headset. The headset is wired into a high-end Intel based PC + high end graphics card. Less than 1% of all PCs shipped can power the Oculus Rift. The full power of the PC is pushed into the Oculus Rift to create fully immersive virtual worlds.
The revenue model for Oculus Rift is primarily gaming to start. One can easily envision more live social interaction, and/or some enterprise uses (i.e. simulated training) for the fully VR worlds that can be created with Oculus Rift.
Most developers of VR have stated that they are glad that they get to work on VR and not AR (or augmented reality). The ability of VR developers to not have to bring in live computer vision from the real world, in real time, and augment real time human perception, is seen as way easier.
Augmented reality largely needs to solve all the problems of virtual reality, in addition to bringing in the live sensor input of human vision.
It is my opinion that augmented reality systems are much more suited to future enterprise use than virtual reality systems. This value within enterprise has largely been vetted by the weird Beta release and consumer level failure of Google Glass.
Google Glass was a problem looking for a solution. Google sought a solution in the consumer space hoping for some level of mainstream attraction and adoption. Instead, Google Glass has found a second life in the enterprise.
For those of you who haven’t used Google Glass, all Google Glass did was project a 32” flat panel TV into the upper right portion of your vision.
It was that simple. Any time you wanted to interact with the digital world, all you had to do was look up and to the right and there was a full virtual screen showing you something.
In many enterprise applications, the simple implementation of augmented reality via Google Glass can be extremely powerful. Imagine being an aircraft mechanic, and you would like to look up the design, plans, or details of a given part you are working on, but you are stuck in a fuel tank. Now you can get that information by simply looking up and to the right. The very simple projection of a single rectangle overlaid into human vision can lead to huge efficiencies in many areas of real work. The initial $1500 dollar price tag for Google Glass may have been a small one to pay for many in-the-field jobs. If all Google Glass did was allow a technician to view a relevant page of a PDF-based manual in the upper right area of their vision during tasks such as aircraft maintenance, automobile fleet maintenance, or assembly line work, the value of the simple augmented reality model that Google Glass presented may be realized quite quickly in increased quality, reduced repair times, or even increased safety.
It was unfortunate that Google went after the consumer instead of the enterprise markets.
Google Glass was just the start of augmented reality. We now have Microsoft HoloLens, which goes beyond the simple projected rectangle in the upper right of your vision and can fully incorporate fully 3D overlays onto any object that you can see within your field of vision.
Microsoft HoloLens starts with simple gaming models for mass-consumer based revenue, but one can see a much larger enterprise vision as a dramatic improvement over the possible gains from Google Glass.
Imagine a supervisor looking out over a manufacturing assembly line while wearing Microsoft HoloLens and seeing real time stats on each station.
Imagine UPS, Amazon, or FedEx workers being able to get guidance to where something is in a warehouse overlaid directly onto their vision without needing any physical signs.
Imagine software engineers that can place status and development windows anywhere in virtual space for their work.
Imagine DevOps staff that can look out over a data center and see which machines have possible future hard drive failures, or the real time status of a software deploy and onto which servers.
Realization of all the above with Microsoft HoloLens is aided by Microsoft’s vision of the Universal Windows Platform (or UWP). UWP allows businesses to reuse much of their existing C# / .NET / C++ code across a myriad of devices: Windows 10 Desktops, Xbox One, Windows 10 Mobile, and Microsoft HoloLens. In essence, many enterprises may already have logic that they can integrate into an augmented reality device so they can realize certain efficiencies with minimal software development overhead.
Augmented reality holds boundless promise for efficiencies within an enterprise, and we are on the cusp of being able to actually realize those efficiencies especially with Microsoft HoloLens and the Universal Windows Platform.
Microsoft has also recently announced the launch of Windows Holographic which allows third parties to create their own augmented (or mixed) reality hardware using Microsoft’s software.
Virtual reality and augmented reality each have their future killer applications and killer niches. Hopefully you can find them within your business and start to realize greater efficiencies and value with augmented reality, and possibly virtual reality, based solutions.