Will augmented and virtual reality be the next big thing?

January 22, 2020 12:40
Facebook has high hopes for virtual reality with the launch of Oculus Go, a cordless, all-in-one VR headset. Photo: AFP

Big technology firms are always thinking of the Next Big Thing. Right now, everyone is focusing on the fifth-generation mobile communications network, which is expected to play an important role in the development of emerging technologies. But the success of such technologies will depend on the applications and revenue model.

Apple is placing its bet on augmented reality while Facebook is setting its sights on virtual reality.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has been promoting augmented reality for a long time. While the iPhone maker has not launched a specific product using this technology, its iOS platform has been supporting augmented reality over the past two years.

Apple is building augmented reality tools to be incorporated into its software so that iPhone and iPad users can play games with virtual characters popping up on the screen.

Pokemon Go is one of the most popular mobile games applying augmented reality.

In an event in Ireland on Monday, Cook was asked about what he thought would be the biggest tech development in the next five to 10 years.

Cook said in response that he sees augmented reality as the future, calling it the “next big thing”. He also stressed that augmented reality isn’t designed to isolate people but to bring people together.

Cook believes that augmented reality will pervade people’s lives. Apart from games, he said, the technology can also be employed in many other situations, such as in a conference, where the speaker can share moments or scenes with audiences in various locations at the same time.

He said augmented reality can be used to enhance discussions, although it is no substitute for human interaction and connection.

Currently, users can enjoy augmented reality through their iOS devices. It has been rumored, though, that Apple is working on a unique device for augmented reality applications.

Earlier media reports said the company could release its first AR headset in 2022, followed by a pair of AR glasses in 2023.

Just recently, Apple has acquired Seattle-based artificial intelligence startup Xnor.ai for around US$200 million, which could be part of the technology giant's efforts to push further into the AR field.

AR devices

Xnor.ai's image recognition technology could be used in the AR glasses and headsets it is developing to allow users to overlay AR experiences on real-world surroundings. 

On-device AR tools can lead to more responsive augmented reality experiences, as the headset, for example, will not have to transmit data to and from a cloud.

Social media giant Facebook is a frontrunner in the development of virtual reality hardware for consumers. In 2014, the company acquired Oculus for US$2.3 billion in a cash and stock deal.  Oculus specializes in virtual reality hardware and software products.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier targeted to have 1 billion VR headsets in consumers' hands as it launched Oculus Go, a cordless, all-in-one VR headset.

However, market response to the device has not been very enthusiastic. The company recently slashed the price of its entry-level VR headset to US$149, from US$199 previously.

Another company betting on virtual reality is Taiwan smartphone maker HTC Corporation. The company has scaled down its smartphone business to focus on VR headsets and content platform.

Its revenue for 2019 was US$333 million, down 57.8 percent from the US$789 million it posted in the previous year.

The success of virtual reality or augmented reality may still depend on games.

Sony, which sells the game platform PlayStation, is expected to be a leader in virtual reality and augmented reality applications thanks to its popular game titles.

The company said it has sold more than 5 million PlayStation VR headsets since the device launched in October 2016. It will launch its next-generation game console PlayStation 5 in the fourth quarter of this year, which is expected to boost the demand for its VR headsets.

Currently, the market response to VR and AR products may not be as huge as their makers want it to be, but some industry leaders believe these new technologies will be the next big thing in the near future.

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EJ Insight writer