May 05, 2021 at 05:28PM

When Facebook first purchased VR headset firm Oculus Rift in 2014 reactions were mixed. Some wrote the purchase off as Facebook’s then 29-year-old CEO making a multiple billion-dollar purchase of an extremely technologically advanced video gaming system. Some, however, hailed it as a visionary move on the part of Facebook to get in on the ground floor of the virtual reality that was going to be the next big thing.

There was a rush of follow-on products to the market after Facebook made its big Oculus play. Samsung’s Gear VR headset was out in the market by 2015, HTC’s headset was out a little under six months later in early 2016, also when Sony’s PlayStation VR hit the market. All entered with a lot of buzz and as evidence that the VR revolution was upon us.

Except it didn’t quite work out that way. As a point of comparison, for example, Amazon’s Alexa also debuted in 2014, after all, and since then roughly 100 million Alexa devices have been sold worldwide. According to the latest edition of the Visa/PYMNTS How We Will Pay report, 23 million consumers who own voice-activated speakers now use them to make purchases while going about their daily routines. Voce has undeniably ignited — and fast — since it first appeared on the scene and in the headlines six years ago.

VR, on the other hand, not so much. It hasn’t exactly proven to be a dud — millions of headset units have been sold, but not the hundreds of millions of voice-connected tech units that have. The biggest enthusiasm for the devices today is where it was when the device launched six years ago — with gamers and extreme early adopters willing to overlook some of the issues that early VR tech carried, including glitches, bugs, extreme power consumption needs and extremely high bandwidth requirements. The headset review that became most common in the early years of VR is mostly boiled down to some variation on the theme that the tech is a good idea in theory and delight to use when working perfectly, something that in practice early VR tech apparently had some difficulty doing consistently.

But while VR was struggling to come up to snuff, something unexpected happened: AR, or augmented reality, took the stage. It was a gaming application that pushed it into the spotlight: the 2016 release of Pokémon Go to the delight of people worldwide. AR presented to the word as something like a VR light variation — no special headgear, no requirement to create fully-immersive digital worlds for people to wander around in but instead using technology to slip virtual images into real-world vistas as viewed through a smartphone camera screen.

Enter Apple

And where VR had failed to gain traction, AR seemed to be pulling it in, and from very big names. Apple made big news in 2017; a year after the release of Pokémon Go Apple was showing off its first AR-based software development suite known as ARKit.

“Apple entering a market is generally seen by the tech industry as [a sign that] the market is ‘real’ now. It will bring … more developers to build AR apps. These will be experiments at first, but as ARKit adds features, the apps will become more sophisticated, and we’ll rapidly see AR become useful to regular people,” Matt Miesnieks, partner at AR and VR venture capital firm Super Ventures, said of why Apple’s investment in the space brings an added dose of legitimacy. And Apple’s efforts in this space have been ongoing — if a bit quiet — since 2017, acquiring Danish computer visioning firm Spektral in 2018.

And while Apple’s AR headset is delayed in its entrance to the market, and CEO Tim Cook is not handing out specifics about when it will arrive, he is quite clear that AR is a big part of where Apple sees its future endeavors.

“When I think about that in different fields, whether it’s health, whether it’s education, whether it’s gaming, whether it’s retail, I’m already seeing AR take off in some of these areas with use of the phone. And I think the promise is even greater in the future,” Cook said in an interview.

And Apple is far from alone, AR has gotten a major push in the last year — partly powered by a pandemic that left people more open to digitized real-world experience. Google, Apple, L’Oréal, Snap Inc., Asos and Perfect Corp. have all gotten into the AR game.

So has AR found its moment in the sun, primed by pandemic and shoppers are looking for new and inventive ways to advance the experience?

Perhaps. It may still be early to tell. Speaking for AR’s readiness for a great leap forward is the fact that the world is more technologically ready to support data demands of AR applications as 5G is becoming more accessible to more users nationwide than it was in the early days of VR buzz. It is also becoming a far more familiar technology to consumer who aren’t gamers or tech worshippers — at this point, millions have used AR tech for more mundane things, like trying on lipstick virtually or seeing how a new piece of furniture will look in their living room using a smartphone screen to virtually place it for them.

But building AR is extremely hard work, particularly if wider usability is the goal. And that’s not PYMNTS’ opinion, that’s the opinion of major AR/VR booster Mark Zuckerberg, who notes ideas like AR/VR glasses required the nearly super-human challenge of placing an entire supercomputer worth of visual processing power into a pair of glass someone can wear on their face.

“I believe that that augmented and virtual reality are going to enable a deeper sense of presence and social connection than any existing platform,” the Facebook CEO said. “And they’re going to be an important part of how we will interact with computers in the future. So, we’re going to keep investing heavily in building out the best experiences here. And this accounts for a major part of our overall R&D budget growth.”


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