2016 is very much virtual reality’s year. Sales are climbing, major companies are getting onboard and the technology shows all the signs of having a long and expansive future. However, VR’s cousin, augmented reality, is not getting anywhere near as much love.
Derided for being gimmicky and sneered at by many developers, the technology is often dismissed as not having a future.
But Phil Charnock, the outspoken marketing manager of Liverpool-based Draw & Code, thinks differently. Working for a company that develops for both VR and AR, he sees both sides of the argument, and doesn’t buy into the widely-held mantra that VR is the future and AR is destined for the rubbish bin.
“AR has massive amounts of users, like way, way, way above VR, and will always be that way,” he explains, referring to apps such as Snapchat that rely heavily on AR. “It’s going to be really tough for VR to ever match AR, in my opinion, because it already has a head start, and people don’t realise it because it often isn’t flagged up as that.”
AR’s image problem
Augmented reality has the potential to produce amazing things. Draw & Code, for example, has produced some remarkable products that make use of its features, including SwapBots, a rather excellent line of customisable AR toys that have garnered interest from, among others, Disney.
However, there remains a negative attitude to the technology, particularly among developers focusing on VR. Charnock has encountered seasoned developers who are completely dismissive of the technology, despite the fact that the underlying development work is largely the same.
Images courtesy of Draw & Code
“I went to a VR meetup not long ago, and there was a round of questions, and one thing that was said was ‘is anybody here also interested in AR?’” he recalls. “I was the only person out of about 40 developers to put their hand up, and I just thought ‘you nutters’.”
A big part of this perception is to do with the way that AR is supported. While the question of which devices support VR is clear, AR capabilities are not always clear from device to device, and many AR features are used without the term ever being mentioned.
“If every single phone had a button that just said ‘AR’ or something people would start finding interesting uses for it, because it was there and you may as well,” he says.
“They’d be looking for growth, and be looking for ‘well, what can we do next that somebody hasn’t done?’ and they’d look towards that AR button on the phone, and because it’s not there as a standard thing, it’s not taken seriously.”
Virtual reality, by contrast, is enjoying growing interest, with Draw & Code currently getting far more enquiries for VR projects than AR versions.
“There’s more interest in VR right now. Definitely. It’s a hot topic. Nobody usually likes talking to me, and I’ve been booked for five talks in the last week on VR,” Charnock says. “It’s phenomenally exciting to be working with VR at the moment. I sound like I’m putting VR down by bigging AR up; I’m not, I’m saying they’re both the same, they’re both equal, they’re both awesome.”
I sound like I’m putting VR down by bigging AR up; I’m not, I’m saying they’re both the same, they’re both equal, they’re both awesome
Charnock often demos the technology to people for the first time, witnessing newcomers’ responses first hand, and describes their reactions as “just so brilliant”.
“We keep on going to really cool events and just seeing people’s eyes light up – well, you can’t see their eyes light up because they’re covered up. But do you know what I mean? If we could, they’d look very happy.”
Perhaps most importantly, from Charnock’s point of view, the excitement building around the technology is “not hollow hype”.
“The first time you have a go of it, it’s pretty damn exciting, and I say for me, the last time I had that feeling was playing on the Wii for the first time, it was the last time I got this giddy and excited over a particular way of interacting with a digital experience like that,” he says.
However, Charnock is realistic about the VR industry’s future, and right now it’s seeing a bubble akin to the dot com boom of the late nineties and early noughties.
“There will be a bit of a bubble, and the bubble will burst in some way or another,” he says.
“Maybe we’re not at that point yet, maybe it will still continue to grow before that happens, but I think any new technology has its ups and downs, but it is here to stay in some form or another.”
Unfortunately this does mean that some of the VR companies being established at the moment will not survive in the long-term, although Charnock believes the industry as a whole will prosper.
“I think it’s a really exciting time to be in VR, but I think it could possibly go down before it comes back up again,” he adds. “That’s fine – the web did that. I say it’s fine; if I lost my job I wouldn’t be happy, but you know, relatively speaking, for the whole industry it’s in a super positive place and it can’t fail from here.”
Although VR still has considerable work ahead to establish itself, augmented reality has been around in commercial applications for many years.
“AR doesn’t necessarily get flagged up as being AR, but it’s been around for ages and ages,” says Charnock. “I remember watching the Indie 500 in the year 2000, and I was looking at it and was like, ‘woah! That advert’s close to the track’ – you know, some billboard. After a while I realised it was AR – I didn’t know what AR was at the time – but I realised it wasn’t really there.”
Similar adverts are also found in sports such as football, and the tech is also regularly used by apps such Snapchat.
“The weird thing is it’s everywhere, and it’s already permeating our culture so subtly and so neatly already,” he says. “Nobody realises. It’s sneaking up on us. AR: it’ll get us in the end.”
However, where AR is seriously stumbling is in the apps that are defining the technology for consumers. In VR this is being led by game-development houses, but AR has largely been dominated by marketers, who are looking to promote goods and services rather than make the platform appealing to users.
“When you download an AR viewer to your phone, you’re not thinking ‘right let’s get some magazines and start flicking through and finding some adverts’. That shouldn’t be your starting point,” he says. “We’ve had one or two people, one or two clients, where they’ll only get 1,000-odd downloads or something with it, and we’ll go ‘no wonder. You’re not offering anything more, you’re just going ‘look, an advert’s going to come to life a bit’ and they’ll go ‘yeah, doesn’t that happen on the telly?’”
If AR doesn’t begin to offer more than just interactive adverts, Charnock fears that it will be very damaging to the technology’s future.
“I almost think it could be in danger of killing itself. AR is already big and will continue – it’s not going to die and not going to go away, it is here and that’s that – but in terms of the actual word AR it could be killed off by it being used so much for marketing,” he says. “You don’t buy a telly for the adverts, do you? You don’t go ‘I want to watch some adverts’, better buy a telly. Oh no, there’s programme on, it’s in the way!’”
However, Charnock does believe it’s entirely possible to make AR experiences that are genuinely engaging, and which do offer more than an interactive advert.
“You’ve got to make the experience really worthwhile, really fun, really rewarding, get some gamification in there, some proper interactivity,” he says. “Get some narrative in there in some way, or just do something unique that nobody has seen ever before, rather than just treating it like a QR code.”
AR and VR’s shared future
Charnock regards both technologies as having a positive, and likely shared, future, largely because AR solves problems that VR simply can’t tackle.
“I think in a mixed reality, augmented reality format is how it will stay forever. I don’t think we’ll lock ourselves into the Matrix; I think it’s more likely it will be used to enhance what’s around us,” he says. “I use VR all the time and I love VR, but I can only use it sometimes. I’ve got a crazy dog – I’ll trip over him.”
By cutting us off from our surroundings, virtual reality will always have just a limited share of our lives, as real-world tasks drag us away from the comfortable immersion of the metaverse, and real-world objects jar with what we can see behind our headsets. AR, however, can bridge that gap, and Charnock believes that a combination of the technologies is ultimately where the future lies.
“AR and VR will come together,” he says. “There are reasons why you want to know what’s around you. We’re not in the Matrix yet, where we’re just hooked up to a thing and just sat there. We want to know what’s around us; we don’t have to be totally immersed in it to still feel like we’re immersed in it, if you know what I mean.”
He sees design decisions made by some headset manufacturers as being supportive of this trend, suggesting that we could see AR creep more and more into VR experiences. The HTC Vive, for example, has a front-facing camera built into it, and mobile headsets such as the Gear VR do allow users to switch to camera view.
“I think there’s probably issues around lag, I’d imagine, of delivering that [image] live to your eyes that may make it tricky, but it doesn’t exactly seem insurmountable,” he says. “I mean the Vive was only 14 months in development, that’s it. It was out there and it’s the best of the bunch.”
Then there’s the AR headsets that are slowly making an appearance, now that Google Glass has been largely consigned to history.
“Obviously you get things like Hololens, where it is basically a pair of glasses, isn’t it?” Charnock says. “It’s just that that’s like a soft take on VR – they’re just kind of skipping VR and going ‘no, AR is the thing’. And I just see no reason why it won’t happen, why AR won’t win; I just can’t see it.”