Augmented Reality Isn’t Practical Yet, and Even Showing It Off Is Hard

Augmented Reality Isn’t Practical Yet, and Even Showing It Off Is Hard

Last week’s Magic Leap reveal landed with precious little enchantment, and more the type of thud one might expect from a whale hitting a well-waxed gym floor. It’s not exactly an uncommon state affairs, either. In fact, it’s an issue that’s been common to a number of high-profile AR launches.

Over at VentureBeat, Jeremy Horowitz has nailed down an explanation for this problem. It’s the result of a fundamental disconnect between the capabilities of the high-end wearable devices we’ve seen and the rather more prosaic options available to non-wearable products. Or, in his words: “The crux of AR’s issue is that there’s no affordable wearable hardware out there. There’s wearable hardware, but it’s not affordable. And there’s affordable hardware, but it’s not wearable.”

High-end devices like Magic Leap, Leap Motion, and HoloLens have tremendous potential, but precious few killer apps or capabilities. Meanwhile, you can use ARKit and iOS 12 to create kitchen timers in augmented reality, with a dedicated timer for each pot or pan. That’s a simple, practical use for AR technology that fits well with how people would likely want to use the tech, except for the fact that no one is going to spend thousands of dollars on a wearable headset just to set kitchen timers, and there are no wearable devices with ARKit integration.

Not only do I agree with Horowitz, I’d take the argument a step further. Ever since Nintendo launched the original Wii, we’ve seen variants of this problem popping up in diverse ways. In its mildest incarnation, the result is a peripheral that some games use relatively well and other titles either generally ignore or ham-handedly leverage. At its most severe, the add-on becomes a liability no one is terribly sure how to utilize. The Kinect and Kinect 2 fell into the latter camp. It’s not that the peripherals had no use-cases; it’s that no one knew how to apply them in ways that would entice gamers to buy into and use the devices themselves.

Some readers pushed back against my own withering critique of Magic Leap’s demo, for which I make no apologies. Given that the company has received $2.3B in funding, it’s reasonable to expect more than a blurry rock-throwing monster. But it may be worth unpacking why that demo is so uninspired. A small rock monster whose missile strikes an external wall and crumbles may be technically impressive, inasmuch as it shows a holographic element responding to a real-world surface. But what it doesn’t show is any way for that capability to be either independently useful (like an egg timer) or jaw-droppingly immersive (like the idea of a whale that can breach through the solid floor of one’s viewing space).

This tension between what hardware can accomplish, and what customers are willing to pay for, seems to lie at the root of many complex problems with both AR and VR. In some cases, the issues are made that much tougher to solve simply because showing the features of the underlying hardware is genuinely difficult. Starting with the 3-D push almost a decade ago, we’ve seen manufacturers ramp up a number of technologies that are hard to showcase if people aren’t watching the demos live and in person. Other factors, like battery life, software support, and integrated hardware performance have presented profound challenges as well.

Until we find a way to start closing some of these gaps, I’m not optimistic that AR or VR will grow particularly well.

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