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Virtual reality headsets are starting to move into the mainstream, but improving function, form and cost will be key to widespread adoption.

Futuristic worlds accessed through goggles with graphics nearly indistinguishable from the real world are growing closer by the day as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) gain steam.

VR is an immersive digital experience that creates a completely virtual environment. AR is data and computer-generated images that are integrated into a user’s natural environment. MR blends elements of both, creating seamless transitions between virtual and real environments.

Millions eager to safely escape quarantine early in the pandemic discovered VR, AR and MR, though today’s world already has heaps of mixed reality mixed in. 

Faces take digital form through Snapchat filters that blend digital images with the shape of a user’s face, while a Google search for a pug from an Android phone will digitally render what looks and sounds like an actual-size 3D pug into your space. Anyone who’s ever played Pokémon GO has already adventured into an AR world. Mixed reality has seemingly boundless potential, with applications in education and industry. 

The pandemic appears to be illuminating opportunities for enterprises to train better, and these improvements won’t just disappear after the pandemic ends. Innovations catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic won’t just go away when some people start returning to work. According to an analysis by KPMG, the majority of innovations spurred by the pandemic are here to stay

“We’ve seen a huge uptick of commercial interest in both virtual and augmented reality driven by the pandemic,” Tom Mainelli, VP of devices and consumer research at IDC, said, adding that organizations of all sizes are leveraging the technology to train new employees, streamline manufacturing processes and increase collaboration among workers. 

The AR/VR industry is expected to accelerate out of the pandemic, with total mixed reality spending ballooning from $12.0 billion in 2020 to $72.8 billion in 2024 comprising a 54% five-year compound annual growth rate.

“I think we’ve seen three to four years of progress in just three to four months, in terms of acceptance of what the new world needs to look like,” Steve Hasker, CEO of Thomson Reuters, said to KPMG.  

Companies look to capitalize as trend becomes reality

Big tech companies aren’t missing the opportunity to build on mixed reality — the genre of tech made up of AR and VR products — though it might not have been in time for the pandemic. 

Facebook owns the Oculus brand of virtual reality gaming headsets, which it bought for $2 billion from the controversial tech entrepreneur Palmer Luckey in 2014. The company also has plans to launch smart glasses in 2021, though they won’t quite be AR. Instead, they’ll be simpler, more along the lines of Snapchat Spectacles — regular sunglasses with an integrated camera lens for filming and taking pictures — with longer term plans to deliver an AR product.

Apple is anticipated to launch a set of glasses that have both virtual and augmented reality capabilities — where digital images are spliced in with your view of the natural world — sometime before 2022. Apple originally planned to release a headset in 2018, but like other tech companies, it pushed the project back due to internal disputes over the design of the product. 

Lots of companies have tried to roll out AR or VR glasses for everyday consumers, but it seems like these products are either too clunky, too expensive or lack the functionality needed to be adopted by the general public. Google launched the Google Glass in 2014 then pivoted the product to sell to enterprises. Examples abound of similar retoolings.

A lot of advancements are being made to mixed reality tech which are solving the problems of functionality, clunkiness and price for widespread consumer adoption. Here’s how these three design problems may be solved in the next few years. 

Function, not just form

First, the problem of functionality. Users are less likely to adopt a new product if it doesn’t improve on older tech or satisfy a need. Another of Apple’s revolutionary rollouts, the Apple Watch, lacks functionality when the wearer isn’t connected to the internet or near an iPhone. The same problem could plague users of Apple mixed reality glasses in remote areas.

“[Typical mixed reality] glasses can’t hold a computer," Wolen, who remains personally and professionally engaged with mixed reality, said. “Most of the functionality of the glasses will be computed in the cloud, and that relies on the cell service that you have. Depending on where you are you might get really slow updates, or the glasses might not even work,” Wolen said. 

With the advent of fifth-generation mobile networks, or 5G, internet speeds might improve enough to connect apps within a mixed reality headset quickly enough while navigating cities, which will make them more useful for consumers and increase their functionality.

Facebook has a goal of 10,000 active Oculus Quest units, which Zuckerberg argued will inspire independent developers to create games that are compatible with the console, another means of boosting functionality. 

Slimming down to reach mainstream

The clunkiness problem is one that must be solved before many mainstream consumers shell out hundreds of dollars for a VR, AR or MR headset.

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Apple originally started working on a super high-performance set of goggles that had both AR and VR functionality that required a stationary “hub” about the size of a small Mac computer that’d communicate with the glasses through a wireless signal. 

Apple execs settled on a new design that ditches the hub — losing some functionality — but still offers a “cinematic” sound system and graphics that are “indistinguishable from reality,” according to Bloomberg. 

“Apple is really good at keeping things sleek, clean and simple, so if they’re making glasses, they know that they need to look good so that someone will wear them all the time,” Wolen said. “... It will be interesting to see how Apple targets customers and how they showcase what these glasses are really capable of. And then from there, we might see other companies mimic what [Apple] is doing.”

Is the price right?

Finally, the price needs to be right for the average consumer. Prices are dropping for the Facebook Oculus Quest. The Quest 2 retails for $299 — that’s $100 cheaper than Oculus 1, which was released just a year before and boasts improved functionality. 

The Oculus Quest 2 was released in October with preorders topping those of the original Oculus Quest, Mark Zuckerberg said during a Q3 earnings call in 2020. 

If Apple’s launch is successful, competitors will likely follow suit and roll out mixed-reality products for everyday consumers, which will result in a lowered price point. It all depends on if Apple’s launch appeals to the general public. 

Apple’s brand recognition and focus on aesthetics may help with the price and adoption of VR by the masses.

JMU grad sounds off on the future of VR

While the real world reels with the uncertainties of inflation, disease and climate change, virtual realities, and even virtual worlds, are becoming more of a possibility. 

Skylar Wolen (’18) founded JMU’s AR/VR class as an undergrad and is now a consultant at Deloitte. Wolen first got interested in the tech when he helped develop a VR exposure therapy treatment app built with Oculus development kits 1 and 2, which facilitate the creation of software that’s compatible with an Oculus headset. 

Wolen’s team earned two prizes at the second annual Bluestone Hackathon in 2016 by designing a virtual reality app that immersed a person in a simulation that exposes them to their fear. One of the hackathon’s judges was afraid of heights and started crying after entering the simulation on a mountain, Wolen said. He’s optimistic about virtual reality’s uses.

“It is pretty exciting,” Wolen said. “It’s different, you know? It’s nothing we’ve really seen before. It’s new and I always like new things, and I like to push the limit on what we’re really capable of.” 

Tech futurists say virtual worlds, or “the Metaverse,” like Ernest Cline’s OASIS from the novel “Ready Player One,” could become a reality within as few as five years. “Digital twins” are virtual copies of real cities that you’d use a set of VR goggles and haptic gloves to access.

“Imagine taking New York City and all of it’s buildings and all of its information and uploading it and having that as a virtual reality world,” Wolen said. “I’m hoping in the next five to 10 years we’ll start to see movement into this area."

In Cline’s novel, humans use a virtual world to escape the messes they make in the real world, ditching a planet plagued by disease and poverty for a sunny and green virtual reality. In light of recent events triggered by social media, it’s not difficult to find examples of technology exposing the negative sides of humanity. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a virtual world as a good place where simulated cancer research can occur, or lonely people can find social interaction. 

Notwithstanding, many tech futurists agree it can be irrelevant to make a call on whether a new tech will pose a net benefit or downfall to humanity. 

“What I see with technology is it always goes both ways,” Wolen said. “There’s always a positive and there’s always a negative. If you leave it up to us we usually bring out the worst in things, but I hope for a positive.”

Jillian Lynch is a senior international affairs major. Contact Jillian at lynch8jm@dukes.jmu.edu.

Disclaimer: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself and it expresses my own opinions. I’m not receiving compensation for it and I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.