A person with a weird machine on his head is shaking his head around, ducking his head from an invisible object, and blindly flailing his arm from something — but nothing is there. However, what the person is seeing is himself in an abandoned castle being attacked by dragons and gargoyles. Is he crazy? No; this is the magic of the gyroscopic sensors and display technology that is known more by the name of virtual reality. In the past years, many tech giant firms jumped into the VR and AR industry, boosting the technology and abilities of both realities. Through collaboration between software-focused firms along with hardware-focused firms, both VR and AR are benefiting and evolving constantly.
On the lower and medium ends of VR headsets, Google has Google Cardboard while Samsung developed Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus. The reason why these are categorized as lower and medium ends of VR headsets is because of their comparably limited resolutions and controls. Google Cardboard is made of cardboard and Gear VR is just a headset in which the user places their phone with only some controls such as tapping and swiping. Without more varied controls and stronger processing ability, it is no surprise that these lower and medium ends headsets are limited. However, they are not as limited as they seem. Although they can’t run ultra HD videos, they can still run the basic VR videos, and for Gear VR, there are couple of hundreds of games and apps. Also, these headsets have one strong advantage over the high end ones: price. While Google Cardboard is as cheap as 7 USD and Gear VR is 95 USD, many high end headsets cost up to several hundred dollars. Another advantage of these headsets are that they are mobile, which means that they can run by themselves, not needing a powerful platform such as a PC. Just with a smartphone, which has around 2.1 billion users worldwide in 2016, a user can buy the comparably cheaper headset and enjoy the VR experience.
On the other spectrum, the high end VR headsets are made with more specific functions with much more control such as gaming. The most sold headsets of this type includes Oculus Rift, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive. Oculus Rift, bought by Facebook in 2014, was the first to be released out of the three and is the second-most sold headset, only to be passed by Samsung’s Gear VR. PlayStation VR was the first VR headset for consoles and HTC Vive in collaboration with Valve, a game developer and digital distributor, managed a somewhat successful debut considering its cost. However, unlike the lower end headsets, most of these headsets are not mobile and are tethered, requiring a PC or in the case of the PlayStation VR, a PlayStation 4, to run the headsets themselves. But through processing the sensors and display through an external body, these headsets can remain lightweight while providing top-notch quality and, with the separate controllers, more precise control than the lower end headsets.
Meanwhile, unlike VR, AR has no big need for a secluding headset that transports its user to a different place because of its distinct characteristic of overlaying. However, that does not mean that a headset will not make the AR experience worse. For this, Microsoft developed the HoloLens and Google is developing Google Glass. Unlike VR headsets, these headsets attempt to augment experiences in reality and facilitate tasks by helping users visualize digital objects in the real world. Hence, the visor part of the headsets is transparent and software plays a significantly larger role due to the need of location and visual recognition on top of the gyroscopic calculation and display VR technology shares. While these headsets are very expensive — HoloLens is 3,000 USD and Google Glass’s prototype was 1,500 USD — that does not mean that AR itself is an expensive technology. Just with the software and a camera, or a phone, people can experience the wonders of AR. Take Snapchat filters and Pokémon GO, for example. Just with facial recognition and a GPS location tracker, they have amused 150 million daily active users and 15.4 million weekly active users.
Since 1987 and 1990, when the terms virtual reality and augmented reality were coined respectively, these realities have never been as close to becoming actual realities, thanks to the advances in hardware and software. As these technologies evolve with more and more firms investing into them and cooperating with others, the application of VR and AR expands more and more. However, just because they are possible does not mean that they are in demand. Like previous times, will VR and AR just be a hype? Or will they stay this time? The technology is here. All they need is a user who needs it.