It’s now possible to fight a vicious dragon against the backdrop of a medieval castle or snowboard through the Swiss Alps, all without leaving home — virtual reality headsets have gotten so advanced that you may forget you’re indeed plopped on your living room couch.
Meanwhile, VR’s cousin, augmented reality, can merge sci-fi with your worldly surroundings: AR brings computer images into real-life situations, and it’s increasingly popular for applications like gaming, medicine, and shopping.
Imagine digitally trying out an Ikea table in your living room to see if it fits with your décor, or inspecting a 3D map of the human body on the table in front of you. And, of course, Pokémon GO is one of the most popular examples of AR that has permeated our daily lives.
These technologies have taken major leaps since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world — the tech industry embraced VR and AR to make increasingly digital interactions feel more immersive. With this opportunity, Meta has since doubled down on its grand ambitions for the metaverse, pushing its Quest headsets as the ticket to engaging virtual workrooms.
Some companies have embraced this virtual transition. For example, consulting giant PwC bought hundreds of VR headsets for employees to meet in VR, as reported by The Guardian. And an executive at the investment firm NTT Docomo Ventures has even committed to holding all her meetings in the metaverse.
This trend could hold: Back in 2019, PwC predicted that nearly 23.5 million jobs around the globe may use AR and VR by 2030 for work meetings, training, or to improve customer service. And that was before the coronavirus-spurred metaverse hype.
But VR and AR may not see equal play time moving forward, at least according to Tim Cook, chief executive officer at Apple. He recently argued that the latter will triumph — particularly when it comes to communication. Cook poured cold water on the metaverse, insisting that VR isn’t a helpful collaboration tool.
“I think AR is a profound technology that will affect everything … We are really going to look back and think about how we once lived without AR,” Cook told Bright, a Dutch technology website, last month.
So, is Cook onto something, or is the man behind Apple’s upcoming AR products just promoting his own business (and stoking a feud with Meta’s VR vision)?
Despite their emerging differences today, the two technologies follow largely similar histories. AR and VR essentially developed in parallel because they depend on the same technological breakthroughs, says Christopher Ball, an assistant professor of augmented and virtual reality at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For example, neither would be possible without the development of computer graphics.
Both AR and VR can be traced back to panoramic paintings from the late 18th century, a concept invented by artist Robert Barker. He designed a building containing a 360-degree painting that was nearly 50 feet high and over 300 feet long, giving viewers the impression that they had stepped into a piece of art.
And after a series of immersive headsets in the following decades, the first head-mounted, computer-augmented immersive tech arrived in 1965. That’s when computer scientist Ivan Sutherland presented the “Sword of Damocles,” a headset display that allowed users to watch a cube “float” around the room.
The equipment was too heavy to strap to someone’s noggin, so it had to be attached to the ceiling with an adjustable pole. (Not quite as convenient as today’s wireless headsets.) “VR and AR were pretty much developed together [because] Ivan Sutherlands’ HMD in 1965 was actually an optical see-through display,” says Gun Lee, a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia who studies virtual experiences and remote collaboration.
It’s clear that neither technology is perfect.
Video game companies started selling VR headsets in the 1990s, and NASA even got in on the action to develop a system for astronaut training. It wasn’t until the early aughts that AR was commercialized: In 2008, German ad agencies designed a print magazine ad that could be held in front of a computer camera and digitally manipulated by users.
Since then, gadgets like the Oculus Rift (first sold in 2016 and discontinued last year) and Google Glass (introduced to an exclusive group of consumers in 2013) have paved the way for the respective VR and AR fields — with varying levels of success.
While early consumer VR headsets have spawned other advanced tools and remain relatively popular today, Google Glass never made it to market and is now acknowledged as a massive failure. It displayed maps and translations and ran searches in real-time on the lenses (sort of like Tony Stark’s shades) but was criticized for elitist promotion tactics and side effects like eye strain.
Still, it inspired a new generation of tools that are still in the works: Companies like Amazon, Google, and Meta are all developing new smart glasses concepts.
It’s clear that neither technology is perfect, and both AR and VR come with their own pros and cons.
The best of both (virtual) worlds?
So far, studies haven’t made it entirely clear how people feel about VR- versus AR-powered meetings. But scientists have acknowledged that these technologies can’t (yet) make people feel fully present in digital environments.
During a 2020 conference for virtual reality researchers, attendees — somewhat ironically — found that headsets were “cumbersome” to use while typing and completing other tasks, according to a 2021 study. After all, easy multi-tasking is currently impossible in VR, TechCrunch noted.
But research has also suggested that VR platforms can foster meaningful interactions and benefit people’s well-being, particularly in periods of social isolation. It’s helpful to connect with conversation partners who aren’t in the same physical space, or those who live across the world, Ball says.
At the same time, VR could also isolate you from the people in your immediate environment, Ball adds. So if you and your office neighbor sit feet away from each other but are both immersed in the metaverse, you may not feel a particularly strong bond.
“I don’t think one is better for communication than the other, just different.”
An in-person meeting where participants don smart glasses could, however, incorporate high-tech features without putting up social walls. “AR is great because it doesn’t disengage the user from the real world, allowing for regular face-to-face communication,” Ball adds.
Ultimately, both technologies can be combined for meaningful interactions, Lee says. If you’re looking to hang out in your room with a friend who lives across the country, you’ll need AR to view them in that space. But on the other end, your friend could simultaneously tune in on VR to a digital model of your room. “It’s not one or the other, it all depends on which type of presence you are after,” he explains.
Overall, both technologies also seem to offer different benefits. When studying them in an educational setting, Ball found that students “felt more present, paid more attention, and had more fun in VR compared to AR.”
But he also noticed that students who learned in AR retained more auditory information, while those in VR better remembered visual information.
Ball doesn’t think the technologies are mutually exclusive and have to be pitted against each other, but rather can serve different roles in our lives — somewhat like cell phones versus desktop computers.
“I don’t think one is better for communication than the other, just different,” Ball says. “As both technologies improve, I believe they will each develop their own use cases.”