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As amazing as virtual worlds can be, they require a connection to the real world, the human user. Interface technologies are the crucial interpreter of virtual events toward experiences that humans can sense.
In augmented reality (AR), simple overlays on cellphone cameras’ view will provide a wealth of opportunities. Niantic’s AR game Pokémon Go from 2016 is an example of such uses.
Meanwhile, smart glasses – such as Google’s ill-fated early attempt with Google Glass from 2013 – are dedicated devices to overlay virtual elements in line of sight to avoid the need to handle and point a cellphone to access virtual information.
In virtual reality (VR), headsets dominate the market. Visual interfaces are at the centre of developers’ attention. It is the most obvious connection to human perception, but a sole focus on vision will limit extended reality (XR)’s applications and restrict the degree of immersiveness the new computing environment could conceivably achieve.
The article Understanding the metaverse – a discussion at SXSW mentions the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa)’s Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW), an early example of a VR headset from 1990. A visual interface was a natural component of such a VR system, but engineers at that time had already experimented with additional interfaces to increase the system’s capabilities.
The system featured a headset very similar to today’s VR headsets, but it also included other interface technologies. The DataGlove is a glove with sensors that can detect finger movement, which can be used as an input device. Similarly, the DataSuit is a full-body garment capable of capturing information about the wearer’s body movement and their spatial orientation. At the time, DataGlove and DataSuit were only considered as input devices, not as output devices that would provide users with information or sensations.
XR, particularly VR, promises to create immersive experiences. To be truly immersive, limiting experiences to visuals and (often non-directional) audio will not be able to achieve the new technologies’ full potential. In fact, in some cases, addressing a range of sensations simultaneously will be necessary rather than desirable. In some therapeutic applications, improvements will rely on providing authentic replications of real-world conditions.
An example from 2017 offers a glimpse into the extent to which XR can envelop users. The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies developed Bravemind – a VR-based interactive exposure-therapy tool for use in assessing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Bravemind pairs video game-style computer-generated imagery with “realistic sensory stimuli – sounds, vibrations, even smells provided by a machine loaded with vials of scents – to approximate the circumstances of a war veteran’s traumatic memories.
The software’s 14 environments, ranging from remote Afghan villages to crowded Baghdad markets, include attackers, bombs, and innocent bystanders.
The current interface focus is on visual technologies – after all, in many applications, visual information by itself can be sufficient. AR sights that provide navigational information or VR landscapes that present architectural plans offer a substantial improvement over currently common approaches. No wonder so many companies work on headsets and glasses. The lists are long, even if looking at only a selection of devices.
VR headsets include HTC’s Vive, Meta Platforms’ Oculus Quest and its high-end, forthcoming Project Cambria, Sony’s VR2, Varjo’s high-end range of headsets, and Xiaomi’s Mi devices. And then there is a host of AR smart glasses. Again, a long list exists and includes Google Glass Magic leap, Nreal, Ray Ban and Snap’s Spectacles. Two other major players need to be mentioned. Microsoft markets its HoloLens2 headset as a mixed-reality device, while Apple’s efforts in AR and VR are shrouded in mystery and subject to the rumour mill, ranging from its working on AR devices to efforts to create a range of XR devices from high end to low end.
Headsets and smart glasses are the user interfaces that come to mind most readily when talking about XR environments and the metaverse. The lists above include well-known device manufacturers, prominent social media companies and a number of startups, with Magic Leap having had its share of notoriety and hype. But perhaps this most obvious vector of attacking the market of XR interfaces could very well be the most challenging as well.
This market arena might be subject to the majority fallacy. Different interpretations exist, but essentially, the thinking is that the major markets will attract a large number of players, ranging from large incumbents to well-funded startups – after all, a large market size translates into substantial revenue. But such an obvious market will also result in cut-throat competition and potentially razor-thin margins.
Consolidation and attrition
Over time, the market for these types of headset will divide into a number of segments that address specific needs, but consolidation and attrition of companies will happen during that period. In fact, the lower end of the market is already experiencing revenue threats. OpenAR, the Open Source Community for Augmented Reality, released in March 2022 a roadmap for DIY open AR glasses that outlines the community’s schedule until June 2026 of introducing a low-end interface with increasingly capable versions.
The version that was released in January 2022 can reportedly be put together for less than €20. The device is unwieldy and unlikely to catch the attention of any sizeable market, but it represents a start and the price point illustrate the community’s ambition. A range of alternative user interfaces will conceivably be able to carve out market niches that might not feature the same revenue potential as headsets and smart glasses – although some might – but promise very high profit margins for companies willing to focus on specialised or high-end applications.
Arguably, at the low end of the spectrum, simple, large-size displays that are embedded in clothing could represent a potential not only for AR applications such as advanced shopping and navigation, but also for simple entertainment services, such as content streaming and gaming. The concept attracted some interest more than 10 years ago, but never completely caught on – challenges persist of embedding electronics into flexible textiles that require occasional cleaning. Now, the concept might find renewed interest as an extension to smartphones and smart watches.
At the high end, for individual users, companies are looking at the use of smart contact lenses that could even accommodate prescription vision correction. Mojo Vision’s Mojo Lens is a smart contact lens with a microLED display, for instance. The company is looking at general AR applications, and with corporation markets, sees its contact lens as an entry point to the metaverse. Intriguingly, other developers are targeting bio-sensing and drug-dispensing applications for contact lenses, so contact lenses could, theoretically, become multi-featured high-tech devices that address a number of consumer and healthcare needs.
A completely different question is where the augmentation should actually reside when shopping in stores or walking through museums, for instance. Should it occur on the smartphone, on smart glasses’ displays, or via holographic installations within stores of facilities. Axiom Holographics is one of the companies that offers such holographic systems, which can create a range of features, from table-size product displays to design prototypes. The company’s visuals still require dedicated glasses, which therefore limit their use to situations in which the audience can access such devices.
Holographic imagery that does not require devices at all has widespread use cases, such as in commercial settings ranging from retail space to conferences to showrooms. AV Concepts offers such applications that enable three-dimensional stage presentations which can find use in demonstrating new product applications, as well as performances by artists such as the late Tupac Shakur.
Holoxica is offering a range of 3D displays roughly resembling a range of sizes of current television sets, and Hypervsn is offering holographic smart walls. The advantages for commercial users are clear – viewers do not require dedicated devices, nor do they need to be compelled to activate their smartphones to see the XR-enabled content.
New inventions will enter the market. For example, in December 2021, Disney Enterprises received US patent 11,210,843 for a virtual-world simulator. Multiple projectors generate images to create 3D images and simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) adjust them for visitors’ changing point of view. Guests at the attraction would therefore not require any devices, such as headsets or goggles, at all.
There will be a large market for XR headsets and AR smart glasses, but a wide range of solutions are competing within these product categories, and devices from other product categories are seeking to provide applications that can serve overlapping use cases. The race to succeed with interface technologies for XR systems has just begun – and we haven’t even scratched the surface. An even wider range of interface solutions will conceivably not only offer competing technologies, but will also be needed to fulfil the promise of truly immersive landscapes.
Martin Schwirn is the author of Small Data, Big Disruptions: How to Spot Signals of Change and Manage Uncertainty (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior adviser, strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.