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Is VR just a stepping stone to something bigger?

Next week's E3 won't be entirely dominated by VR, as some events over the past year have been; there's too much interest in the prospect of new console hardware from all the major players and in the AAA line-up as this generation hits its stride for VR to grab all the headlines. Nonetheless, with both Rift and Vive on the market and PSVR building up to an autumn launch, VR is still likely to be the focus of a huge amount of attention and excitement at and around E3.

Part of that is because everyone is still waiting to see exactly what VR is going to be. We know the broad parameters of what the hardware is and what it can do - the earliest of early adopters even have their hands on it already - but the kind of experiences it will enable, the audiences it will reach and the way it will change the market are still totally unknown. The heightened interest in VR isn't just because it's exciting in its own right; it's because it's unknown, and because we all want to see the flashes of inspiration that will come to define the space.

One undercurrent to look out for at E3 is one that the most devoted fans of VR will be deeply unhappy with, but one which has been growing in strength and confidence in recent months. There's a strong view among quite a few people in the industry (both in games and in the broader tech sector) that VR isn't going to be an important sector in its own right. Rather, its importance will be as a stepping stone to the real holy grail - Augmented or Mixed Reality (AR / MR), a technology that's a couple of years further down the line but which will, in this vision of the future, finally reach the mainstream consumer audience that VR will never attain.

The two technologies are related but, in practical usage, very different. VR removes the user from the physical world and immerses them entirely in a virtual world, taking over their visual senses entirely with closed, opaque goggles. AR, on the other hand, projects additional visual information onto transparent goggles or glasses; the user still sees the real world around them, but an AR headset adds an extra, virtual layer, ranging from something as simple as a heads-up display (Google's ill-fated Glass was a somewhat clunky attempt at this) to something as complex as 3D objects that fit seamlessly into your reality, interacting realistically with the real objects in your field of vision. Secretive AR headset firm Magic Leap, which has raised $1.4 billion in funding but remains tight-lipped about its plans, prefers to divide the AR space into Augmented Reality (adding informational labels or heads-up display information to your vision) and Mixed Reality (which adds 3D objects that sit seamlessly alongside real objects in your environment).

The argument I'm hearing increasingly often is that while VR is exciting and interesting, it's much too limited to ever be a mainstream consumer product - but the technology it has enabled and advanced is going to feed into the much bigger and more important AR revolution, which will change how we all interact with the world. It's not what those who have committed huge resources to VR necessarily want to hear, but it's a compelling argument, and one that's worthy of consideration as we approach another week of VR hype.

The reasoning has two basis. The first is that VR isn't going to become a mainstream consumer product any time soon, a conclusion based off a number of well-worn arguments that will be familiar to anyone who's followed the VR resurgence and which have yet to receive a convincing rebuttal - other than an optimistic "wait and see". The first is that VR simply doesn't work well enough for a large enough proportion of the population for it to become a mainstream technology. Even with great frame-rate and lag-free movement tracking, some aspects of VR simply make it induce nausea and dizziness for a decent proportion of people. One theory is that it's down to the fact that VR only emulates stereoscopic depth perception, i.e. the difference in the image perceived by each eye, and can't emulate focal depth perception, i.e. the physical focusing of your eye on objects different distances from you; for some people the disparity between those two focusing mechanisms isn't a problem, while for others, it makes them feel extremely sick.

Another theory is that it's down to a proportion of the population getting nauseous from physical acceleration and movement not matching up with visual input, rather like getting motion sick in a car or bus. In fact, both of those things probably play a role; either way, the result is that a sizeable minority of people feel ill almost instantly when using VR headsets, and a rather more sizeable number feel dizzy and unwell after playing for extended periods of time. We won't know just how sizeable the latter minority is until more people actually get a chance to play VR for extended periods; it's worth bearing in mind once again that the actual VR experiences most people have had to date have been extremely short demos, on the order of 3 to 5 minutes long.

The second issue is simply a social one. VR is intrinsically designed around blocking out the world around you, and that limits the contexts in which it can be used. Being absorbed in a videogame while still aware of the world and the people around you is one thing; actually blocking out that world and those people is a fairly big step. In some contexts it simply won't work at all; for others, we're just going to have to wait and see how many consumers are actually willing to take that step on a regular basis, and your take on whether it'll become a widespread, mainstream behaviour or not really is down to your optimism about the technology.

With AR, though, both of these problems are solved to some extent. You're still viewing the real world, just with extra information in it, which ought to make the system far more usable even for those who experience motion sickness or nausea from VR (though I do wonder what happens regarding focal distance when some objects appear to be at a certain position in your visual field, yet exist at an entirely different focal distance from your eyes; perhaps that's part of what Magic Leap's secretive technology solves). Moreover, you're not removed from the world any more than you would be when using a smartphone - you can still see and interact with the people and objects around you, while also interacting with virtual information. It may look a little bit odd in some situations, since you'll be interacting with and looking at objects that don't exist for other people, but that's a far easier awkwardness to overcome than actually blocking off the entire physical world.

What's perhaps more important than this, though, is what AR enables. VR lets us move into virtual worlds, sure; but AR will allow us to overlay vast amounts of data and virtual objects onto the real world, the world that actually matters and in which we actually live. One can think of AR as finally allowing the huge amounts of data we work with each day to break free of the confines of the screens in which they are presently trapped; both adding virtual objects to our environments, and tagging physical objects with virtual data, is a logical and perhaps inevitable evolution of the way we now work with data and communications.

While the first AR headsets will undoubtedly be a bit clunky (the narrow field of view of Microsoft's Hololens effort being a rather off-putting example), the evolutionary path towards smaller, sleeker and more functional headsets is clear - and once they pass a tipping point of functionality, the question of "VR or AR" will be moot. VR is, at best, a technology that you dip into for entertainment for an hour here and there; AR, at its full potential, is something as transformative as PCs or smartphones, fundamentally changing how pretty much everyone interacts with technology and information on a constant, hourly, daily basis.

Of course, it's not a zero sum game - far from it. The success of AR will probably be very good for VR in the long term; but if we see VR now as a stepping stone to the greater goal of AR, then we can imagine a future for VR itself only as a niche within AR. AR stands to replace and reimagine much of the technology we use today; VR will be one thing that AR hardware is capable of, perhaps, but one that appeals only to a select audience within the broad, almost universal adoption of AR-like technologies.

This is the vision of the future that's being articulated more and more often by those who work most closely with these technologies - and while it won't (and shouldn't) dampen enthusiasm for VR in the short term, it's worth bearing in mind that VR isn't the end-point of technological evolution. It may, in fact, just be the starting point for something much bigger and more revolutionary - something that will impact the games and tech industries in a way even more profound than the introduction of smartphones.

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