What is it?
No matter who you are, what you do or your level of familiarity with technology, there is a good chance you have heard phrases like ‘immersive technology’ or ‘augmented / virtual / mixed reality’. But what does it all mean? At Arcade, we work primarily with augmented reality, but what is it and why do we use it?
These are all good questions, and you are not alone in asking them.
When people talk about ‘immersive technology’ they tend to mean the two sister technologies, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Both use digital content and present it in three dimensions, but what separates them is their relationship with the real world.
‘Mixed reality’ (MR) is the generally accepted term for AR content that is smart enough to interact with the physical environment. Think digital balls that roll to the edge of a table and fall onto the floor, AR objects that disappear (or become ‘occluded’) behind walls or people, or laser beams that bounce off walls. As immersive technology matures, this level of intelligent relationship between the digital and physical world is becoming the norm, almost to the point that there is little useful distinction between AR and MR.
When our work is primarily about engaging visitors to a physical location, AR is often the ideal technology to create a more meaningful connection to the space. When we are more focused on engaging audiences wherever they are, AR can still be highly effective, but VR and other 360° immersive technologies also come into play.
What is it for?
Another good question. Immersive technology is a medium, like TV or the internet, the big difference being its ability to present content in three dimensions, rather than the standard two. Like any medium, it is used for a wide variety of purposes, from entertainment to education, artistic to practical. A few examples, to demonstrate this breadth:
The Tool: IKEA PLACE
IKEA became AR pioneers when they first developed an app way back in 2013 that let users see certain items of furniture in their homes. An update that made the most of rapidly evolving smartphone technology came in 2017 with IKEA Place. Today, it is possible to fill an entire room with virtual IKEA furniture to see what it might look like. Don’t like that colour? Change it with a swipe. That bookcase too big? Switch it out. Other ‘try-before-you-buy’ applications quickly followed and are quietly revolutionising the world of fashion and cosmetics in particular.
The Game: Pokemon GO
The game that became a global phenomenon in 2016 and continues to be one of the biggest apps in the world today. Seeing the little Pokemon characters as if they really were in your local park, on your street, even in your home, changed players’ relationship with their world. Suddenly, Pokemon didn’t live in some imaginary, far-away world, they were here, living with us, in our world. More about Pokemon GO’s intelligent – and sparing – use of AR here.
THE ART GALLERY: MEET VERMEER
Google Arts & Culture are, unsurprisingly, immersive tech pioneers. One of their projects brought all of Vermeer’s greatest works – in reality spread across many different galleries around the world – into a virtual gallery. ‘Visitors’ anywhere in the world could place the gallery on a table, peer into it and then step inside.
THE LESSON: LANDING ON THE MOON AR
As augmented reality becomes a better-understood medium, it is being embraced by storytellers of all kinds. News organisations are no exception, and TIME is at the forefront, releasing the TIME Immersive app in 2019. Its first experience tied in to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and brought Apollo 11 and its lunar module into people’s homes and classrooms around the world.
These are just four examples available to the public. In addition to many thousands more consumer applications in almost every category you can think of, AR and VR are also being used extensively in a huge variety of workplaces, from surgical theatres to warehouses, factories to battlefields, where it is helping professionals do their jobs in new, more efficient and effective ways.
The key conclusion is that AR and VR are fast becoming that most underrated of things: they are becoming normal. For now, most of us are blown away by this crazy futuristic technology that can make things pop into existence in the air next to us. But this phase won’t last for long. The examples above show that we are already beginning to look beyond the technology, and are much more interested in what it can do for us. Which is exactly the way it should be.
What's the future of Immersive Tech?
Prior to the COVID crisis 2020 was already becoming a year of steady but persistent growth for AR and VR, but the experience of being stuck in our homes for extended periods has accelerated interest and uptake across multiple sectors.
The previous 12-18 months had delivered healthy reality-check – pun intended – for immersive tech after a prolonged period of unachievable expectations had started to undermine people’s interest. Instead, attitudes have shifted and a more achievable, sustainable future for the technology awaits. Critically, organisations are finally discovering how to use it to create real value, rather than simply making headlines.
That said, this is an industry with a global value of $3.48bn in 2017 and $5.78bn in 2018, and is predicted to reach a staggering $198.17bn by 2025, according to Statista. Even without the ‘COVID catalyst’ this remains a stellar technology capable, ultimately, of revolutionising the way we interact with the digital world.
How we access this content is likely to shift away from the little rectangles in our pockets to glasses – or even lenses – that offer a wider, hands-free view of the world. But the fundamentals of AR and VR will remain true. We are at the dawn of the augmented era, where digital content in the three-dimensional spaces around us will soon be as familiar as two-dimensional screens today.