Virtual Reality

Thinking Wisely about Augmented and Virtual Reality

Leaders think about the possible future to anticipate opportunities and consider how to mitigate risks.

The fundamental premise of Augmented Reality (AR) is that you’ll wear special glasses or contact lens which overlay digital information on the real world.  Look at an object and information about that will appear.  Look at a person and through facial recognition and pattern matching you’ll get more information about her – maybe her latest tweets, the fact that she has a birthday next week, or her company affiliation information pulled from Linked-In.  Skip monitors and screens because they’ll be projected virtually for you, on top of what you’re seeing in the “real” world.  You’re always connected.

AR is distinct from a full immersion virtual reality (VR) experience, which will also become mainstream.  VR aims at complete control of what your senses take in.  AR layers information or capabilities on top of your usual visual/auditory input with the intent to enhance the experience.

The converging technology of computing power, wireless connectivity, sensors, and specialty materials facilitates accelerated introduction of AR and VR. Savvy technologists predict 2016-2017 will be the consumer breakthrough years for affordable products that people want to use.

AR and VR will be part of significant commercial and educational applications.  Imagine getting ads and discounts presented to you while you stroll near a store.  Like some clothing?  You can see what you look like wearing it.  All the features of a heads-up display for fighter jet pilots will be an everyday feature of driving your car, including a GPS overlay of your route when you’re not sure about directions.  Children learning about different parts of the world will have the option of a virtual experience.  You’re not limited to reading about the Taj Mahal; you can stroll around it in a guided tour.  Virtual meetings will not be limited to audio and maybe some screensharing; everyone can see everyone else, including detail facial expressions, as if they’re sitting in the same room.

There are powerful economic incentives driving AR and VR.  Capabilities will increase quickly, and these things will be utterly normal (indeed, expected) within a few years.

AR and VR are the next trendline of smartphone and tablet behaviors – positive and negative.

Let’s think together about how AR and VR help, and then potential risks we as leaders should consider.

How AR and VR Help

Enhance learning opportunities.  Ever used an audio guide at a museum?  Imagine 100x that capability.  Anything you want to learn about can be a rich experience, not limited to traditional text or audio.

Process more information.  We’ll need better algorithms for filtering and personalization, but AR in principle could help us process much more information associated with our daily experiences.

Rich meeting interactions in virtual spaces.  Even today’s best videoconferencing capabilities still fall short of “being there in person.”  AR and VR could make this much closer.  Pen pals could become VR pals as the technology is mainstreamed.

Creates new business and market opportunities.  Once the technology is good enough, we’ll see new business ventures and marketing opportunities that we haven’t quite imagined yet.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, once these technologies become mainstreamed there will be a new market for being disconnected and only in the “real” world.

Potential Risks for AR and VR

Addictions.  Think about how fixated people become with their smartphones – now extrapolate that forward to a wearable device that’s always on, always connected.  It’s difficult enough now for families to have meal-time without devices, or limit the “screentime” of children and teens.  How many people will prefer to retreat into a pleasant VR rather than deal with the difficulties in the real world? How can we train youth and adults to use these capabilities wisely?

Increased loneliness and disconnect.  We’ve noticed a curious phenomenon as the Internet, social media, and smartphones & tablets became ubiquitous: an increase in the number of people who report being desperately lonely.  People need genuine connections and being truly with others – these technologies purport to deliver but actually could interfere with person-to-person life.  Part of maturity is learning how to be truly with people, as difficult as it is in the real world.

Who controls what you see/experience?  What are their motivations and worldview?  Google manipulates search results; Facebook controls what shows up in your timeline.  As people become more dependent on AR for information how will they know what to trust?  What is the privacy factor in the analysis of what you’re looking at, or where you were?

Biased learning.  Even the sincerest efforts at historical description and depiction in still or moving pictures have biases and errors.  People watch a drama based on a real incident or person, and come away convinced what they’ve seen is the truth.  How can we make sure people understand the limits of AR and VR?  Any story-sharing medium only takes you to the brink of reality.

Noise and overwhelm.  We’re awash in information now, and bombarded with advertisements in every channel.  Mainstreamed AR adds much more than it simplifies, at least in the near-term.

Over-emphasis on visual and auditory.  At least in the earliest imaginable phases of AR and VR the primary senses are sight and hearing; there will be very little with touch, taste, or smell.  I watched several videos about India and China before traveling there, but they didn’t prepare me for the vast range of smells and the tastes of the regional foods.

Let’s be clear: AR and VR are coming.  You won’t be able to avoid them entirely.  There will be business, social, and entertainment options – all three have powerful economic drivers.  There are many positives to look forward to.  There are enough cautionary risks that we need to choose how to use them wisely, and train others to do so as well.