At SXSW ’17, National Geographic produced an activation powered by AR that brought a gallery of wildlife photos to life. As one of many exhibits in National Geographic’s extensive space, this drew users into the experience while not totally isolating them from the rest of the space thereby creating a connection between the event, the experience, and the individuals taking part.

Why AR Will Supersede VR

Apple’s unveiling of their augmented reality development tool, AR Kit, at the World Wide Developer Conference is an indicator that they see the future of augmented reality being much stronger than the future of virtual reality. Augmented reality, or AR, is a user interface paradigm whereby a mobile device overlays information such as 3D graphics on live video captured by the device and positions those graphics based on the device’s GPS coordinates, direction, and orientation. This, in effect, joins the real world with the digital world as viewed by the phone and allows apps to augment what the user sees in reality. (See what I did there?) Whereas virtual reality, or VR, is an user interface paradigm whereby the user places a specialized pair of goggles on his or her head that projects a 3D image specifically for the user and that adjusts based on the user’s direction and orientation. VR experiences can include both 360° video recorded by a specialized camera that captures from multiple angles and conventional 3D graphics. While both AR and VR offer mobile-oriented, 3D experiences, I agree with Apple’s decision to pursue AR in a stronger way because it produces an experience that many can share simultaneously, it actively integrates both a new user interface paradigm and traditional tap-based gestures, and it requires no additional hardware other than a phone unlike VR which requires a specialized headset therefore making it a far more ubiquitous medium.

Samsung’s Gear VR headset.

In the realm of virtual reality, when a user places a VR set on his or her head, VR transports him or her to a different, isolated world. It is the ultimate immersive experience because the user is totally separated from normal reality. This creates an enthralling experience well suited to the games and riveting documentaries so often associated with VR. However, the experience is an isolated one. Shared VR experiences are only now beginning to take shape, and there is work to be done before they are practical beyond novelty. VR, for the time being, is primarily a mono-directional interface whereby the user can only consume content rather than consume and create it. Albeit, the user in VR does have a level of control over how he or she consumes the content by moving about within the virtualized space, it is still just generally consumption of information rather than a true exchange with another party.

Instead, AR offers a shared experience so that multiple users with independent devices or just one shared device may all see, hear, and interact with the content and then make choices to manipulate or change the content using the controlling device’s other inputs such as voice or touch. Pictured at the beginning of this post, I visited National Geographic’s space at SXSW 2017 and tool part in their AR exhibit. The use of AR in this instance connected me to the content of the experience — the augmentation of a series of wildlife photos — but also connected me with my colleagues viewing the content with me and with the party that was happening all around me. This was neither a distracting nor isolating experience: AR was simply one ingredient in the recipe of this event.

IKEA’s catalog app allows users to see the furniture store’s products in users’ homes using AR.

While some have called Apple’s unveiling of AR Kit a move that is too late and that AR on the iOS platform has already taken off, I disagree that this is a too-far-gone decision on Apple’s part. While the feasibility of AR as a successful medium is proven thanks to such innovative games as Pokemon Go, Apple sees the value in offering a tool to developers that decreases the barrier to entry for AR and that will eventually then increase the saturation of AR in the iOS ecosystem.

A constant issue seen with VR is the difficulty in getting the right hardware in the hands of consumers. Early adopters and tinkerers have either sprung for expensive headsets like Oculus or have gone the low-budget route of Google Cardboard, but the overall market penetration remains low with a projected 2.5M unit sales of VR devices for 2017 whereas as Apple alone ships more iPhones than that in one quarter. Meanwhile, AR requires no additional hardware outside of a single mobile device. By virtue of that simplicity, the ratio of the number of users who can be considered AR Kit-ready vs the number of users who can be considered VR-ready is almost exactly the ratio of the number of active iOS devices vs the number of active VR hardware and VR-enabling devices such as Google Cardboard. Meaning: the market for AR far exceeds the market for VR.

This is by no means a death sentence for VR. It is still a valuable tool and one that will remain relevant, but it will never be as widespread as some hope. VR and AR are still different mediums attacking the similar problem of creating enhanced digital experiences, and therefore VR will continue to thrive where total immersion benefits the user. However, history shows us that users tend to avoid total immersion and prefer interactivity that compliments or integrates-with their environment. For evidence of that, look at the downfall of 3D TV or the long-forgotten Nintendo VirtualBoy. Instead, we see AR used in applications that are a part of a larger interaction ecosystem: event management apps give users heads-up-displays of what is going on around then, entertainment apps place users’ favorite characters in the real world, retail apps finally make relevant connections between the brick and mortar and e-commerce.