You may well be thinking that Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are just quirky pieces of technology used as toys, but they both have a relevant place in our interactions with machines and data. I specifically said “both” because VR and AR, whilst often lumped together, are really very different beasts.

Virtual Reality:

The recent film adaptation of Ready Player One highlights many of the elements of VR, not least the ability to be completely removed from an otherwise dystopian world around you.

VR aims to hijack your senses and convince you that you are elsewhere. Primarily this is with a headset given a screen for each eye and headphones for ears. The images you see change as you move your head making that environment convincing. In gaming this makes a big difference, using computer-generated environments. VR also is used to view 360 video streams which show a real-world event but offer less navigation in the environment, because it’s filmed. Both these approaches, and hybrids of them are clearly good for entertainment, but the immersion approach works for situational training, allowing real memories of being in a place or situation to be formed. Whilst there are new styles of interface to be considered much of VR is about the content, how do you structure an experience. The games and film industry are still feeling their way here, but there is also a lot to draw upon from earlier work in virtual worlds.

Augmented Reality:

AR tends to use headsets too, placing digitally generated data and models into a user’s view of the real world. Basic versions are merely heads up displays not linked to the structure of the world, but full AR the user will see digital objects aware of the physical environment, rendered to sit on tables or be occluded by other elements in the view. AR provides a user with access to data they would not normally be able to see. Once again this offers entertainment options but it truly becomes useful when accessing information from inside machines that are Internet of Things (IoT) enabled. As I have written many times AR is the user interface for IoT. An engineer can see inside a running machine getting in situ data, a less experienced worker can be given overlay instructions to guide them. Whilst the hardware will take a while to evolve though there is still access to this kind of information with the support of AR across IOS and Android devices. This means start-ups can explore and demonstrate what they might offer in this space without the need to high-end expensive headsets.

The Future:

For the desk worker, sat at a screen or screens taking up space, once AR can deliver a light and simple experience it can give you all the screens you need wherever you are without impacting anyone else. One device and infinite combinations or work environment. Not only that but full AR can block out the entire world around you to create VR to give the best of both worlds.

As we get to explore and improve the way we interact with technology, making it fit to how we have evolved as humans would seem to be obvious. We are spatial and tactile beings but have locked ourselves to qwerty keyboards and solid screens or pads, assuming that’s the way it will always be. It isn’t and there is a lot to invent and explore yet.