AR and VR: Moving faster than even the smart kids guessed

There were half a billion mobile devices and connections added around the world in 2015, most of which were accounted for by smartphone growth. The proliferation of connected devices is amazing, but it is just the beginning. The next leap forward in the evolution of mobility is being driven by augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). The pace is staggering - even the early proponents of these technologies are stunned by rate of technical escalation, inflow of investment, and big company interest that has transpired over the past two years.  These technologies will require fast networks and ongoing encouragement of the small business innovation that propelled us to this point of transformation.

Over the next two months will reveal the first consumer virtual reality systems with the introduction of the Oculus RIFT, HTC VIVE, and Sony Playstation VR. Up until now, the ability to experience the connection between mind and motion in a completely immersive experience has been the playground for gamers.  VR will bring that immersion to a completely new level while opening applications in education, training, design, and information visualization. In 2017 we will see the first high-performance mobile VR systems come to market, and by 2018 these will exceed the performance of today’s desktop systems.

Augmented reality requires additional technology and the most innovative young ventures are being rapidly acquired by Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. A recent Goldman Sachs report predicts an accelerated uptake scenario of $182 billion market ($110 billion in hardware, $72 billion in software) and with VR/AR technology evolving from a “niche device to a broader computing platform.” Potential challenges to these forecast include “latency, display, safety and privacy, and the technology is used primarily for videogames.” Analysts expect software developers to start building augmented reality applications in 2016 based on early developer hardware, but those systems won’t be consumer-ready until late 2017 or 2018.

Augmented reality is designed for mobility, embracing the ability to overlay information relevant to whatever we see, whenever we see it. The extra development time is driven by the need to miniaturize displays, vision sensors and mobile computers so they can be easily worn and go everywhere we do. In the not-too-distant future, our smart phones and watches will visualize social information on any scene in real time. The result is the delivery of completely customized, exceptionally curated information on wearable screens in a highly entertaining format. The applications that solve real problems for consumers are going to blend augmented reality and virtual reality. Bringing detailed media and real-time interactivity to this new wave of mobile applications is going to require fast, low latency networks.

The policy implications of this fast approaching reality deserve our attention. As the demand for mobile expands exponentially, so must the bandwidth and network capacity on which these connected devices depend.  These new devices require high-bandwidth networks, and policymakers at both the federal and state level should embrace the coming revolution of 5G mobile and adopt policies that incent investment in high-speed wireless networks of the future and make it easier to deploy the network assets like small cells they require build out the infrastructure required for these networks – a strong step that must be complemented with an increased allocation of wireless spectrum, the invisible airwaves on which mobile technologies “run”.

Why is this important? Because the impact of a few actions could unintentionally halt the next evolution in technology.  We – innovators, gamers and consumers - are best served if government considers how it can aid this rapid acceleration instead of discouraging with interference, red tape and drawn-out deliberations.  This has historically proven to be strong strategy for the development futuristic technologies.  If CES 2016 was any indication of what amazing mobile technologies and innovations are being developed, a connected future like nothing we have ever seen is within reach if good public policy helps clear a path.  

Solotko is a VR and AR pioneer who serves as the chief marketing officer of Seebright, an augmented/virtual reality innovator located in Santa Cruz and Palo Alto, California. He is also co-founder of Praevidi, developer of the Turris, revolutionary seating for VR.