Augmented Reality future is bright, but present is gray

Some times ago, I’ve written on my blog an article about the problems I had while developing with HoloLens (I reccomend you to read it, if you haven’t ever tried HoloLens). I thought people were going to kill me… instead I got some approval from people having my same thoughts. People that are fighting with customers each day to make them understand that what they see in Microsoft Commercials is just not true. It’s a vision, not a product.

IMHO, HoloLens is currently the most advanced AR glass in the market: there are other good competitors (like Meta 2) and good… whatever-they-are (Magic Leap), but being this device completely standalone (you don’t have to connect it to PC to make it work) and able to track all the environment around you, plus being backed by a big company like Microsoft, it is surely the best alternative.

And this most advanced glass is surely cool, but it’s a delusion if you try to use it to make augmented reality as you envision it, since:

  • FOV is terrible, really… it breaks any kind of immersion
  • Graphical power is really low
  • Device is comfortable only if you wear it for few time, then it start to hurt your nose and make your eyes dry
  • Mapping of the environment works, but it’s far from perfect
  • Sometimes “holograms” are not stable
  • The only manual interactions you have available are pinching and dragging. No hands tracking (with Meta you have it, instead), no body tracking, no other people tracking.

What this means is lots of compromises: when you try to develop any kind of applications you have to consider that the user have a little vision cone in AR; you have to consider only “click-like” interactions… so you have to forgot every kind of natural interactions (e.g. you can’t grab Holograms in your hand); you have to make super-lightweight scenes, otherwise the framerate drops immediately (at least with Unity apps). And so on.

After having seen commercial videos, some customers come and think about making wonderful apps: exhibition installations of magnificent landscapes where you see apple trees from which you can grab apples with your hand and then put them near your mouth and taste them. It’s hard explaining to them that the maximum I can do is showing two small trees (otherwise with little FOV is impossible to see them completely), from which I can air-tap (i.e. pinch) an apple to make it show a simple animation. But this is what is possible now.

Me playing RoboRaid: I had lots of fun, but firing with the tap gesture (the one you see I’m doing) is really tiresome and not natural

I’m not saying that AR is not cool and I surely understand that making such a device is really really hard. But I’m saying that present-time AR is like Virtual Reality at DK1 status: something that shows great potential, but very few present features. If anyone wants to jump into the AR world to make business, it is great to know that it’s a game on the long-term, not in the short one. And for long term and I’m talking about years, not months. Microsoft “announced” (the news was leaked, actually) it will skip version 2 of HoloLens and that next version will be out in 2019… two years from now! If this is the case, all analysts’ reports talking about bazillions for AR market turnaround in 2020 will be required to move ahead their predictions by some years. This has already happened with virtual reality, when they continuously missed the predictions (even for last years), due to too much optimism (and don’t let me talk about predictions on Google Glass they made in 2014… Statista predicted more than 10 million devices sold for this year… while actually now the project is…ehm, dead).

AR will be the future because it will be pervasive, it will be the next platform after smartphone: in the far future, we will wear it all day, all time. But to arrive to that point we have to solve lots of super-hard technical issues (FOV, framerate, power, battery), design issues (devices should be light, little and good-looking, like a standard reading glass), social issues (wearing an AR glass should be accepted by all people). Furthermore, prices should be affordable ($3000 is the current price of a HoloLens and it’s enormouse) and content should be adequate (current HoloLens apps are too few). This will be a very long term battle on all sides. Companies like Microsoft and Apple investing in AR is surely a good sign, but who knows which are their timelines.

In the meanwhile, nowadays AR is just experimental stuff, something with which we can make some interesting projects and prototypes. I like working with HoloLens, but I know I’m making it more to be ready when the technology will explode than to have something that could be profitable in the present.

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