Everyone likes to talk about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) as cutting edge technologies that are going to “destroy” or even “revolutionize” the tech landscape. Marketing teams are using AR/VR in an almost mystical way – “the future”, with a lot of hand waving. And they’re almost always tied together like AR/VR, like they’re one. In fact, it became a saying. If we see a presentation link them together as some future use case, we tend to automatically ignore the rest of the presentation.

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Editor’s note:

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Guest Author Jonathan Goldberg is the founder of D2D Advisory, a multifunctional consulting firm. Jonathan has developed growth strategies and alliances for mobile, networking, gaming and software companies.

In fact, AR and VR are very different. And their future has nothing to do with it. This is important because in order to be commercially interesting, they need to answer a few important questions. And these questions are similar, but the answers will be very different.

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Why do we say they are so different? Under the hood, the electronics are very similar. VR is a set of glasses that require very advanced, very tiny, high-density displays. AR will most likely be a set of glasses that will require very advanced, very tiny, high-density displays. But this is engineering thinking. And no offense to engineers: what many think will change technology needs to be analyzed from the perspective of user thinking. And here AR and VR are completely unrelated.

VR provides total immersion, VR goggles block out all external light sources. This means that users cannot move due to the risk of colliding with walls or coffee tables. Virtual reality is intended for the consumption of content – videos, games, educational materials. True, users could get omnidirectional treadmills, but they would still stay in the same room. VR doesn’t have to be portable, which greatly simplifies things like power requirements and network connections. For example, VR doesn’t need 5G, home Wi-Fi or even wired ethernet will work much better.

In contrast, the AR is designed to be portable. The whole point is to overlay AR data on the real world. This greatly complicates the work with electronics. The power supply will be very complicated, imagine that you are wearing a battery on your belt with a wired connection to augmented reality glasses. This is where 5G comes into play, especially given the requirement for very low data latency (needed to reduce motion blur and nausea-inducing dizziness).

So the electronics are similar at a high level, but even at this engineering level there are already significant differences.

There are important differences in content. VR data can and most likely will come from a single source – a video or game producer. In contrast, AR will require the integration of massive layers of data. The notorious example of using augmented reality glasses to find the nearest restaurant requires integrating local food guides, maps, and the user’s current position. Yes, it exists on the web today, but moving to something as personalized as AR is likely to cause a reorganization of those existing relationships. And that’s not to mention a major new category of privacy concerns – AR will be able to tell data owners a lot more about what we do and who we do it with.

Most importantly, the impact of these devices on consumer behavior will be completely different. Virtual reality may change how we consume content and new ways of capturing that content will be needed, but it won’t fundamentally change how we interact as humans. On the contrary, augmented reality has the potential to change how people interact in the same way as smartphones, that is, to a very large extent. Done right, AR means instant connection to all sorts of data – undetected on the other side of the park, a restaurant you didn’t know was so close, some event just a block away from you. We can’t predict them, just like no one could have predicted Uber before the launch of the iPhone.

When it comes to the core concepts of user interface and user experience, AR and VR are completely different. To sum it up, we think it’s important to look at all the devices and machines we use on a regular basis and compare them in two dimensions – how portable it is and how personal it is to us.

Trains and taxis are not personal at all, many people use them, but they are mobile. Smartphones are very personal things, you only share your password with very close people. Laptops are somewhere in between, somewhat portable and quite individual to the owner, but easier to share. The VR glasses are located at the bottom, something personal and not so mobile. On the contrary, augmented reality glasses are likely to be incredibly personal, but not as mobile as our phones.

Think about the variety of user interface models for these devices and we begin to understand how different AR and VR should be.

When it comes to the real question behind VR and AR, the only question that really matters is who will control the software, the operating system (OS) that powers them. From this point of view, the answer for VR is probably simple – they will be tied to game consoles and PCs that provide content.

On the other hand, the answer for AR is still in limbo. Apple, Google, and Meta would very much like her to be the OS vendor, but that’s by no means a foregone conclusion. Solving many UI and OS issues for AR will be a challenge and there is still a lot of competition in these areas.

Image credit: Barbara Zandoval