The Rise of Immersive Tech: Augmented and Virtual Reality Transforming Work and Play
You are never far from a screen in today’s world. But we are drawing ever closer to the point where, instead of staring down at a phone or tablet, you can simply gaze ahead through a digital lens to find the information you seek.
Global technology giants, including Apple, Meta, and Microsoft, are racing to create the hardware that will propel the so-called “immersive era” — when augmented and virtual reality start to mesh with daily life, radically transforming both work and play.
According to Jessica Driscoll, director of immersive technology at the innovation center Digital Catapult, “Immersive tech is going to touch every part of our economy.” She predicts a “big push” for the technology to be used to make the design and manufacture of goods more efficient and to enable a more environmentally sustainable means of cross-border collaboration.
Consumer spending on VR is expected to triple by 2027, reaching $5.7 billion globally, according to tech consultancy Omdia. It will reach $2.83 billion in the US and $458 million in China by 2027, Omdia predicts.
But the true potential of immersive tech is still to be unlocked, as developers grapple with the challenges of miniaturization, design, and making different hardware and software interoperable.
AR involves combining a view of the real world with 3D graphics, while VR involves creating a completely virtual world. An early version of the latter was pioneered by General Electric in the 1970s to make a flight simulator for training pilots. But it has only relatively recently found wider adoption among consumers, and usage rates remain low.
“The last 10 years have ushered in a new era in the commercialization of VR, but we are still in our adolescence,” admits Tuong Nguyen, an emerging technologies and trends analyst at the consultancy Gartner. He says it’s a small market but growing quickly, with consumer use typically sporadic and on a limited basis.
AR is already a common feature of apps that use smartphone cameras or photos. Examples include visual translation apps, playful face filters on photo apps such as Instagram, shopping apps that superimpose glasses or furniture on your face or living room, and the cult 3D game Pokémon Go.
VR has made some more inroads in workplaces, as headsets have become a key tool for specialist training. For example, BP uses them to train oil rig workers, avoiding the time, expense, and safety risks involved in training at an offshore facility. Designers at Ford use them to test new car shapes, instead of making mock-ups using clay.
However, augmented reality is likely to have the biggest impact on capital-intensive heavy industries, such as construction and maintenance, where people are involved in “hands-busy work and need just-in-time information,” explains Nguyen.
Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 headset is pitched at the manufacturing, construction, and healthcare industries. Mock-ups show a person fixing a piece of machinery while on a video call with someone giving instructions.
But, for now, the most widespread application of VR has been centered around gaming. “The main reason why people buy these devices is games,” notes George Jijiashvili, senior principal analyst at Omdia. This month, Meta released its Quest 3 headset, which, priced at $499 in the US, has piqued the interest of game developers.
Even so, Jijiashvili says that progress in terms of content and use cases has been slow, which is the biggest challenge facing VR right now.
Further use cases are emerging in the auto sector, though. Automotive manufacturers are using AR and VR to develop the next wave of in-car entertainment systems, as well as providing route navigation.
Ford, Volkswagen, and BMW are enthusiastic about VR, but it is Chinese carmakers who are “very willing and aggressive” in their partnerships, says David Tett, principal analyst at Omdia.
This pivot towards immersive tech by auto companies has been accelerated by the arrival of electric vehicles. But the rise of autonomous cars will spur further demand for in-car diversions ranging from films to karaoke.
” That’s where these car companies are now seeing their long-term future: selling you an entertainment package to effectively enable in-car media apps,” says Tett.
Eventually, tech experts predict the boundary between AR and VR will blur, and they see the launch of the Apple Tech Vision Pro headset being an important milestone on that path.
Due for release early next year and expected to be priced at $3,499, Apple’s headset offers both VR and AR to create “spatial experiences”. What looks like a pair of sci-fi ski goggles is, in fact, a sophisticated wearable computer.
At present, however, Meta dominates the market for consumer VR headsets, with a 71.8% share, followed by Sony with 8.8% and Valve with 2.9%.
How the market pans out may depend on the way both VR and AR developers are able to meet future challenges around interoperability, IP licensing permission, and design — given that most current headsets are too clunky to appeal to the average consumer.
A further factor in accelerating wider adoption will be the rollout of the 5G mobile network, which is designed to connect almost everything — including objects, people, and devices — and to host complex 3D spaces such as the metaverse.
“5G’s low latency and high bandwidth can open doors to complex mixed reality applications,” suggests Jijiashvili, “further bridging the gap between physical and digital experiences.”