Is there truly a dark(er) side of immersive tech (AR / VR / XR)?

Few months back, I spent an evening at MIT Northwest Innovation Forum focused on AR / VR / XR and some of the personal insights from the panel discussion led me to write this article.

First of all, for people who do not know what AR / VR / MR is?

AR (Augmented Reality): Enhances the real world using digitally produced perpetual overlays

VR (Virtual Reality): Immerses the user in virtual environment, allowing user to both interact and experience with the environment

MR (Mixed Reality): Projects graphical visualization of augmented reality in 3D, allowing user to interact with the environment

Now that everyone is on the same page, let me tell you why we do not not interact with immersive tech on our daily basis and why the adoption has been slow.

  1. Expensive hardware: VR headsets, smell pods, Tesla full body suit
  2. Less immersive tech content: Mass users are not creating ton of content for the immersive tech
  3. Too much focus on gaming: One of the successful use cases of immersive tech is gaming and after watching movies like Ready Player 1, it is difficult to think of other use cases

Bright(er) side of Immersive Tech:

  1. More inclusiveness: When you are in VR, you are in your avatar. It can be different from who you are in your real life, you might be a female, male, old, young, ugly, beautiful or any other adjective associated to your personality
  2. Use cases in Education and Training: Alchemy is using AR / VR to teach chemistry and physics.
  3. Use cases in Medical Field: Medical students can improve both their knowledge and skills by taking advantage of AR / VR. It ranges from practicing surgeries on virtual parents to creating human body models to learn about anatomy in depth.
  4. Use cases in Astronomy: AR / VR help astronauts in maintaining a space station. They can receive visual work instructions without turning to manuals.

Dark(er) side of Immersive Tech:

  1. Research has shown that immersive tech experiences are more memorable than real life experiences and other research has shown that you cannot differentiate between the two experiences since immersive seems so real as well. There was a VC on the panel who shared that after spending 5–6 hrs on VR gadget with her colleague, she couldn’t recollect what happened in VR compared to her interaction with her colleague in real life. This is indeed scary.
  2. Privacy intrusion: It ranges from tracking the eye movement to manipulating the consumers. Did you also hear the story where someone groped another person in their VR experiences?
  3. Job loss: Will there be a need of customer experience representatives or sales reps in this new world of AR/VR?
  4. Diversity and inclusiveness: Will AR/VR be able to solve for why AI assistant is always female, why women is pictured in the kitchen, or will it further accelerate the issues?

My ideas on use cases for Immersive Tech:

  1. Travel: What if you are able to travel the entire world through VR
  2. Real Estate: What if you are able to see houses for buying or renting without actually going and visiting the house through VR; all the home buyers or renters would agree that purchasing or renting is such a tedious task. It requires time to go to the property, you need someone who has the keys and authority to show you the place, and then you need to go and see countless properties before finalizing a place of your dreams.

My true sense based on my learnings from panel discussion on immersive tech at this time (beginning of 2019):

  1. There is still time for the underlying hardware technology to be commoditized (cheaper / easy to use / light weight / readily available in production), for the immersive tech to be all about experience
  2. For mass users to use AR / VR products, there needs to be enough content out there and we cannot expect the content to develop overnight
  3. It is a credible technology but in a short run, we are going to see a very few niche use cases that continue to rely on more data / content to improve over time; this excludes its importance in gaming
  4. We are away from the darker side of immersive tech; except what comes from normal gaming already (violent games)

Thanks Martina Welkhoff, Jeff Rayner, Jude Dai, and Ricardo Parker for their time on the panel and Bob Rosner for moderating the event.