Imagine calling up your friend in a land far away and instead of talking with a voice on the phone or screen, interacting with her hologram in real time, in your living room. Or wearing a lens over your eye that projects all you do with your phone on a virtual screen in front of your eyes, just like Iron Man’s Jarvis. That’s augmented reality (AR), in a nutshell, for you.
It’s a technology that overlays virtual elements on the real world scenario, and lets you interact with it in real time. It can be developed into apps and used on mobile devices. Microsoft’s Research team has already given us a glimpse of the technology that ports the hologram of a person, using a special rig of cameras and Microsoft HoloLens headset. Add to that the interactive gaming experience of Pokemon Go or Counter Strike, which gets you to travel over the dunes of the Sahara, catch creatures floating around in your vicinity, or see a baby dragon tear through your wall.
But augmented reality is not to be confused with virtual reality. While augmented reality enhances the real world setting with virtual interactive elements, virtual reality will recreate a different setting digitally in your living room, obliterating the real world setting.
India’s perfect for AR
Virtual reality is at the moment just that – virtual. The hardware backing the technology is still far from mainstream and only a handful of content is available. What’s more, the VR devices available today do not have the capacity to run a video for more than 5 minutes or so.
The hardware ecosystem for augmented reality, on the other hand, is fledgling. Your smartphones, tablets, or even your laptops can be used to enable augmented reality. And that’s the reason industry experts feel AR will beat VR into early adoption. Tech in Asia met with prominent players in the AR/VR space on the sidelines of Nasscom game developers conference in Hyderabad to decode the assumption.
“The reason why VR has not picked up as yet, despite huge hype over it, is because of the hardware ecosystem for it. It is expensive and impractical. AR hardware is already there in our hands, our phones. It makes sense to develop AR content,” says Prakash Sayini, director at Deloitte.
Augmented reality mobile gaming apps are poised to reach 420 million downloads by 2019.
We have already seen a hit in the AR space with Pokémon Go. The mobile game developed by Niantic for iOS and Android devices and released in July garnered over 20 million active users. Now, Hyderabad-based gaming #startup Empower Labs has also launched India’s first augmented reality game, Delta T, which is based on time travel.
Globally, Magic Leap, its investor Google, and Microsoft have been working in the area of AR with a virtual retina display, Project Tango, HoloLens, and Google Glass. Google attempted to bring AR to the masses by launching Google Glass in 2013, but the premium pricing of US$1,500 spelt doom for the device and failed to make an impact in the market.
“Even when new hardware is being developed and tested for AR as we speak, it’s not a worry if it takes another three to four years to hit the market. Because smartphones and tablets are available which can be used to bring consumers on board,” says Soumyajit Deb, senior staff engineer at Qualcomm’s corporate R&D center.
India’s thriving smartphone market has made it conducive for AR. The country is touted as the second-largest market for smartphones after China, overtaking the United States. The Indian smartphone market grew 23 per cent in the first quarter of 2016. Subsequently, the Indian AR and VR market is projected to grow to US$90 billion by 2020, from US$1 billion currently, according to Deloitte. Augmented reality mobile games are poised to reach 420 million downloads by 2019, according to Juniper Research.
Appeal to the masses, find everyday utility
In India, there are several companies working in AR space. In education, companies such as Ingage and Blippar are using AR to create content to improve the learning experience. In the ecommerce domain Lens Kart allows shoppers to try on glasses using AR while Atheer is in the business of developing AR headsets.
CommonFloor, a real estate and apartment management portal offers retina headgear to view properties virtually in 3D.
In gaming, Empower Labs’ multiplayer online role playing game integrates gameplay, in-depth plot lines, and real-world interaction in one offering. “We feel AR is much more practical at the moment than VR. We wanted to deliver AR content to the audience in a package that they are comfortable with, and requires minimal investment,” says Krishna Milan Rao, CEO of Empower Labs.
“Gaming allows us to tap into an audience of early adopters,” he adds.
It seems the average customer isn’t as eager to pay US$600 for bulky goggles simply to peruse VR content that practically doesn’t exist.
While VR hasn’t really taken off, it nonetheless generates a lot of hype. At the beginning of this year all anyone could talk about was the impending release of HTC’s Vive headset, and Rift from Facebook’s Oculus. The headset sales quickly lost steam and it was obvious that it didn’t have the mass market appeal some had assumed.
“It seems the average customer isn’t as eager to pay US$600 for bulky goggles simply to peruse VR content that practically doesn’t exist,” says Shailesh Daxini, country manager of Zynga India. While Oculus Rift costs US$599, HTC Vive is US$200 more than that. Sony’s PlayStation VR is priced around US$399, and the HoloLens kit is a whopping US$3,000.
“For VR to really work and succeed, it has to appeal to a mass, and find utility in everyday life. Currently the devices are way too expensive, and all VR headsets exclude you from the real world. Plus, the headsets are bulky and impractical,” says Anuj Tandon, head of game publishing and marketing at Nazara Technologies. There have also been reports of users feeling nauseated because the picture fails to refresh along with the user’s movement, creating a giddy effect.
The VR headsets currently in market need a lot of tweaks, says Shailesh Kumar, vice president for R&D at SmartVizX. “The display needs to have more depth, the motion tracking needs to be improved. If I move my head, the picture should refresh accordingly and quickly. The rate at which the device captures frames should be around 90 to 120 per second.”
Compared to other sectors, media companies have been particularly aggressive about pursuing VR for storytelling and live event coverage from the technology’s early days. They have been experimenting with 360-degree videos. However, ask any industry insider and they will tell you that 360-degree videos are simply an advanced technology in capturing moving images, and not “true VR”, “because it doesn’t overlay a whole new space, it just shows you a current scenario is 360 degrees,” says Franky Upadhyay of VR Indies, a virtual reality discovery platform.
“There is still time for VR to become mainstream and adopted by common users. The technology will not enter the mainstream consumer space for at least 5 more years,” he adds.
Room for improvement
Shailesh of SmartVizX says that eye-tracking technology can work wonders in improving the VR experience. The technology is simple. It tracks your eye movements and changes the setting according to that, rather than tracking your head movement. Google’s experiment with area mapping under Project Tango can also be incorporated in the devices to make the experience more realistic. It uses computer vision to enable your mobile devices to detect your position in relation to the surroundings without using GPS. These features can also reduce the processing power a device would need to change the picture, improving battery life, which will in turn enable developers to make wireless devices.
If I feel sick the first time I use it, I wouldn’t pick it up next time, let alone buying it.
However, these solutions are either just in theory or in early stages of research. Moreover, there’s a downside. Eye tracking can add over 8 milliseconds of latency or delay in refreshing the picture when you move – adding to the giddiness that a lot of users have experienced.
“Such details can make or break a technology. As more users try the technology for the first time, these issues will become critical. If I feel sick the first time I use it, I wouldn’t pick it up next time, let alone buying it,” Anuj of Nazara technologies says.
Right now, it’s fair to say that the industry is still figuring out what types of VR devices and content are worth producing and how to make money from these projects.
Meanwhile, mainstream apps like Pokémon Go and Snapchat are already showing consumers’ appetite for augmented reality experiences. While VR is still struggling to incorporate features like spatial mapping, and gesture recognition, AR has already evolved to use such technology and is available to the public.
The initial hardware development for AR was limited and could only power basic experiences. The new breed of AR hardware is diverse, spanning Kinect 2, Google Glass, and advanced mobile devices that are now in the hands of developers and entering the market. As a result, we will likely see more useful AR-based services.
The AR ecosystem has also evolved with more startups and platforms, wherein companies are focusing on industry specific problems. Sectors like education, retail, automotive, and medical are just a few of the industries ripe for disruption through use of AR technology.
Virtual trial rooms
Voonik, an online fashion marketplace startup, has been using virtual dressing room app TrialKart to enable its mobile app users to see how its clothes would look on them. It has also been working with four other technology companies to enable features like image recognition and tagging.
Another Indian tech startup Coitor has developed a virtual dressing room using AR for physical stores. All you need to do is stand in front of Coitor’s screen to try different garments; no need to stand in long queues for the trial room.
Alibaba is also jumping into the AR bandwagon with gusto. The company launched an augmented reality game Tmall’s Cat, similar to Pokemon Go, during its Singles day shopping festival in China. Players chased Tmall’s cat mascot around both online and offline environments to earn prizes from participating merchants. Earlier this month, Alibaba also invested about US$15 million in Israel-based augmented reality developer Infinity AR.
[AR] gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present talking to each other, but also have other things visually for both of us to see.
Apple is another prominent player that is expected to dabble in AR soon. The company has acquired three firms in the AR development space in last three years: Metaio, an augmented reality startup; real-time motion capture firm Faceshift; and expression analysis startup Emotient. Apple is rumored to be testing an AR headset, which may be powered by an iPhone.
The headset will be in direct competition to Microsoft’s HoloLens, which also offers a wireless AR experience. Tim Cook had recently said, “My own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far, because this gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present talking to each other, but also have other things visually for both of us to see.”
While VR as a technology is exciting, it is still some years away from entering our lives. Until then, it is AR with a readymade ecosystem to boost the technology – our smartphones we are so addicted to – which will rule.