Augmented and virtual reality are in rapid development, and the industry is busy trying to articulate use cases to both consumer and commercial customers. Thus far, the industry is off to a less-than-explosive start, as the technology surrounding mixed reality is refined and perfected. But the ceiling is distant; market research suggests that by 2024 the market could be worth as much as $6.9 billion.
Business News Daily talked to experts on some of the most prominent mixed reality platforms out there to find out more about these tools and when we can expect widespread adoption. [See Related Story: Augmented Reality Check: Innovative Ways Businesses Are Embracing AR]
Microsoft released the developer version of its mixed reality headset, known as HoloLens, last year at a price point of $3,000. While that might prove a bit pricey for across-the-board consumer adoption, it's right in the affordable zone for high-end consumers and commercial enterprise.
"The HoloLens is compelling, but what's really compelling is that it's Microsoft," Chadwick Turner, chief strategy officer of mixed reality content studio MANDT VR. "The back end and the front end are both based on Windows 10."
HoloLens is an untethered headset, meaning users can move around freely while exploring their holographic environments. The lack of wiring makes the headset rather maneuverable, but users will have to contend with a relatively limited field of vision extending just 35 degrees.
Windows has built in an application called "HoloStudio," which enables users to build their own holographic models using a toolbox of simple shapes to create complex structures. The final products created in HoloStudio can also be 3D printed directly from the HoloLens.
According to Philip Alexeev, head of growth for mixed reality creator community Sketchfab, the HoloLens is likely the closest headset to "real life production" out of the platforms he's seen, but still has to work out difficulties surrounding motion tracking and gestures like Microsoft's "air tap."
"I think the lag and drawback is really just motion detection; the way you interact isn't quite natural and is not perfect in picking up hand cues and signals," Alexeev said. "That's really where they need to put some work in and I know they have been, so I'm expecting some cool updates."
If the HoloLens excels at navigating your holographic environment, Meta's Meta2 headset is focused on productivity at your desk. Because the headset is tethered, the user's mobility is limited; however, the trade-off is a high-powered processor and a larger field of vision of 88 degrees, creating a rather immersive experience. Meta2 is also about one-third the price of HoloLens, totaling $949 for a developer's kit.
"What I like about Meta is that it's got a [nearly] 90-degree field of view, which is incredible," Whitney Fishman Zember, managing partner of innovation and consumer tech at global media agency MEC, said. "It also felt really light and comfortable, and if you're wearing it for long periods of time you don't want it to feel bulky."
When it comes to focus areas, Meta appears to be targeting productivity and work more than entertainment and exploration. According to Adam Dachis, host of Supercharged and the Awkward Human Survival Guide podcasts on 5by5, the Meta2 particularly excelled when it came to manipulating 3D models in space.
"Say you're sitting around a conference table and you're designing a car," Dachis said. "You share the 3D model and everyone can move their arm and interact with it. If [one action] happened in Arizona and [another] happened in New Hampshire, both actions go to the server, and the server sends it back to everyone who should be experiencing that stimulus on their headset, and times it properly."
The implications that sort of modeling has for architecture, construction and healthcare, for example, are immense. It also offers powerful consumer applications, like examining the look of new furniture or an outfit before purchasing.
Magic Leap is the big question mark in the mixed reality industry. Virtually anyone who knows anything has been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which has led to a dearth of reliable information and an abundance of rumors. However, Magic Leap has seen serious interest from heavy hitters like Google and Alibaba, leading to general excitement in the mixed reality community.
"It's cool, and that's all I can say," Alexeev told Business News Daily. "It's very promising."
Marred by the departure of several top executives, some have speculated that Magic Leap has run into some serious obstacles. Others, however, remain optimistic that the company will live up to expectations.
"They've had four senior executive departures, but look at where they went; they started new companies, they joined new teams," Turner said. "Just because people are departing doesn't mean there's not something special there. There's a lot of pressure on them, but I think these seminal investors … all saw something special."
Google Glass 2.0
Google Glass, widely remembered as a mixed reality shortcoming, has been upgraded and revamped to focus on industry and business. A lightweight wearable device that clips onto the frames of glasses, Google Glass 2.0 is aimed at streamlining hands-on work by providing contextual information directly on the job site.
"Workers in many fields, like manufacturing, logistics, field services, and healthcare find it useful to consult a wearable device for information and other resources while their hands are busy," Jay Kothari, Google Glass project lead, wrote in a blog post. "That’s why we’ve spent the last two years working closely with a network of more than 30 expert partners to build customized software and business solutions for Glass for people in these fields."
For example, Glass can be used in the manufacturing industry to consult checklists or operational manuals, as well as send and receive photos, videos and communications to adapt to real-time conditions on the fly. In keeping with the theme of hands-free, Glass is voice activated, responding to "Ok, Glass" and then a subsequent request for the appropriate application.
For now, Glass 2.0 is sold exclusively through Glass Partners and costs vary based on the software customization, customer support and training you need.
Osterhout Design Group Smartglasses
ODG launched two new pairs of mixed reality glasses at CES 2017 – the R-8 and R-9 smartglasses. Both models are reportedly capable of running both augmented and virtual reality. The R-9 is essentially a more powerful version of the R-8, and the price points of the products reflect that reality. The R-8 is slated to start at $1,000, while the R-9 is expected to launch at $1,799; each of these models are cheaper than the pre-cursor R-7 model, which sold for $2,750. As costs decrease and capabilities improve, these glasses are poised to become a strong leader in the more lightweight, mobile mixed reality sector.
"I found the demo to be very impressive, with great screens and great refresh rates," Turner said.
The smartglasses are significantly smaller than the more powerful, yet bulkier headsets. For a simple analogy, consider the difference between a desktop gaming computer and a smartphone; the R-8 and R-9 are designed for mobility and functionality on the go, rather than immensely powerful and immersive experiences.
"My understanding is that [ODG] is really focused on enterprise," Fishman-Zember said. "They're really targeting prosumers; they've launched an advanced medical application to improve healthcare. And any time you have employees in the field, where you need them to see things but they're not tethered to a desk, this could be potentially game changing."
The most common thing users said about the R-8 and R-9 was how comfortable it is to wear these devices, even for extended periods of time.
Epson Moverio BT-300
The Epson Moverio BT-300 is also a lightweight, mobile smart glass device with a compelling consumer price point of about $800. Immediately notable is the sleek design of the glasses, which are among the smallest on the market. Epson has also partnered with drone-manufacturer DJI to create drone-specific programming that can help put pilots in the "driver's seat" of their unmanned aircraft and see through the eyes of any in-flight cameras. Epson also has a heavily populated app store, meaning owners of any of the BT models will already have access to a significant library of software.
"It's a compelling piece of technology that continues to educate the masses [about mixed reality]," Turner said. "For less than $1,000 you get these glasses and … if you look at the app store, you'll see 150 applications beyond the first-party apps."
When it comes to more mobile glasses like the ODG and Epson models, Fishman-Zember predicts a natural progression away from the smartphone to the smartglass as the preferred mobile device of tomorrow. Epson, she predicts, will be a competitive player on that frontier.
DAQRI makes an entire line of mixed reality products, including a commercial enterprise-focused helmet, as well as a more consumer-targeted smart glass. The enterprise-focused helmet will be priced around $15,000, but includes powerful tools like a built-in thermal imaging camera, which could be particularly useful in repairing industrial machinery, for example. The helmet includes a wide field of view and relies on a visual-based selection system designed around head movement, rather than the more common hand gesture navigation.
"One thing I was shown with the helmet was an industrial turbine," Gray Scott, founder and CEO of SeriousWonder.com, said. "There was a 3D rendering of a turbine floating in front of me, and I could still slightly see through the object and see people moving around behind it. The turbine was stable in space, so as I moved around it, it remained stationary so that I could walk around it and examine in 360 degrees."
Scott said a drawback was the requirement that users move their heads up and down, side to side to select something. He predicted that future iterations of the smart helmet will employ eye-tracking and perhaps blinking as an interface method instead.
Where is the industry heading?
With all of these amazing technological strides, it can be easy to lose track of the business end of the industry. Tipatat Chennavasin, co-founder of The Venture Reality Fund, is working to finance mixed reality studios so that when these platforms are ready for widespread adoption there is already a myriad of content to explore.
"A lot of people are asking what the driver of VR or AR adoption will be," Chennavasin said. "Well, what was the driver of traditional PC adoption? It wasn't the internet or watching videos, that didn't exist at first. It was desktop publishing. Microsoft Office; Powerpoint, Word, and Excel. It was this idea of being productive, and it revolutionized communication."
Chennavasin shares that expectation for mixed reality devices, which is why he launched The VR Fund along with his partners.
"We're still at the very beginning, but there are really strong indications that this is a healthy market, a healthy ecosystem," he said. "[Mixed reality studio] Owlchemy Labs, for example, made $3 million in less than a year in software revenue from VR. That shows me there is really something here."
As the industry evolves and the technology improves, Chennavasin said he wouldn't be surprised if mixed reality crossed over with new emerging technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence or with internet of things applications, creating a unified, high-tech ecosystem of intelligent products. While that day might be some distance away yet, the emergence of mixed reality devices as a usable technology has the future on everyone's minds.
"Right now [we're in] a stage of experimentation, and there's definitely something here," Chennavasin said. "This is not just playing video games. People are experiencing that, absorbing what's out there, and building on it. We'll get to those killer experiences and help drive mainstream adoption very quickly."