AR vs. VR

by Jason Ocker

It’s been a month since Pokémon GO launched, and the game is still making headlines. Rough estimates from two weeks ago had the number of daily active players somewhere between 9 and 21 million.

Over that month, there’s been some great takes on what the phenomenon means for gaming, mobile, and the human race in general, but its most interesting aspect might be that it has made augmented reality (AR) cool. After all, AR is a relatively old technology which in the past few years has been completely shouldered out of the spotlight for the giant promises of virtual reality (VR)—giant promises that have yielded nothing even close to the uptake of Pokémon GO despite massive investments and efforts from everybody from Facebook to Samsung.

And to me, that makes sense.

It’s a lot like the wearables discussion we had here on the blog a couple of years back. Google Glass had much more potential as a technology, but there were stronger reasons why smartwatches made more sense as far as public acceptance in the near-term. And we were right, even if smartwatches still underwhelmed in the end due to the products themselves.

In the case of AR over VR:

1. No additional hardware is needed: The hardware for most AR applications is already in your pocket (unless it’s in your hand catching cartoon monsters).

2. AR interaction conforms to known paradigms: The way you interact with AR is the way we already interact with technology. After all, anytime we use Google Maps to navigate a city or Yelp to find some drunken noodles, we’re using our phones as a virtual layer that augments the real world.

3. AR solves more practical problems: Aside from gaming applications, AR can solve more and more common problems than VR can. VR might make surgeons better at performing operations, but so can AR. And AR can also help them find where they parked their car after the operation.

4. Creating compelling content is easier and cheaper than with VR: Because VR needs to be completely immersive to be compelling, it takes a lot of investment, both in the software experience and in the hardware. AR just needs to be great at augmenting what’s already there.

So if all that’s true, why hasn’t AR taken off yet? I mean, VR goggles are at least being used on rollercoasters and in convention booths.

I think that’s because nobody has done point four well yet. Well, except for that one company that pretty much ignored mobile devices for years until letting loose a bunch of pocket monsters and suddenly took them all over. Many tech commenters immediately noted that had Google Glass come out with something as compelling as Pokémon GO, it would still be around and probably dominating the mobile space.

Of course, both AR and VR hold great promise. But if Pokémon GO is any indication, we might be much more ready for AR than VR today.

Unless it’s all just the power of Pokémon in the first place.

Photo credit: Virginia State Parks

Jason writes. Tells stories. Develops strategies. He oversees a wide range of creative and technical projects. He’s also an award-winning author of half a dozen books and has been featured on or in CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

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