Digital Reality: Welcome to the new normal?

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with names like ‘augmented reality’, ‘virtual reality’, ‘immersive technology’ and the like. They sound exactly what they are: dreamed up by technology geeks, inspired by science fiction, designed to sound futuristic and literally unbelievable. The result is a lexicon that makes some salivate – you know who you are – but puts many others to sleep. Some in my industry will find this hard to believe, but this type of language, for some, is eye-rollingly dull, off-putting and maybe even a bit intimidating. “This isn’t for you” is the perceived message – in most cases the very opposite of what it is trying to achieve.

So I, for one, am delighted by recent developments where the tech is being relegated to its rightful place in the narrative – i.e. almost invisible. The tech industry often gets a bit carried away and forgets that the experience is king, not the technology.

Google to the fore

Hello, Panda

Google is leading the way, first with the introduction of its 3D search functionality. Without any big fanfare, it has added a ‘View in 3D’ option to its mobile search. No app download, an incredibly simple interface and within seconds you can be face to face with a giant panda, amongst many other animals (the range of 3D objects is due to expand dramatically). There is still an ‘AR’ tab, but it is a pleasantly understated presence. The result is an experience that makes it seem as if occupying the same physical space as a digital giant panda were the most normal thing in the world – which, as it turns out, it sort of is.

They followed up by announcing that AR functionality is being embedded directly into YouTube, so users can seamlessly engage with content they are watching, such as trying on cosmetics during a YouTube tutorial. Early screenshots show that the focus is on the experience – ‘AR’ is nowhere to be seen.

MAC Cosmetics ‘Try On’, coming this summer. Image: Google

And Google’s good work is set to be compounded by the arrival of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, the latest ‘planet-scale’ offering from Niantic (by absolutely no coincidence at all, an ex-Google company). Niantic’s monster hit, Pokemon GO, is often cited as the game that introduced AR to the mainstream but, as anyone who’s played it knows, the AR elements are far from integral to the gameplay. Harry Potter appears to be different – AR-driven gaming is fundamental. But like the Google examples above, the important bit is the experience and how good it is, not how ‘AR’ it is.

The rise of the ‘digital reality’ toolkit

A recent Deloitte report on immersive storytelling uses the phrase ‘digital reality’ to describe immersive experiences, as distinct from ‘physical reality’. I like it. It might only be a small nuance to some, but the world is already so familiar with the notion of ‘digital’ – and a sense of familiarity is exactly what the immersive tech industry needs from the audiences it seeks to engage.

It seems to me that we are gradually realising the truth: AR and other immersive tech are simply new creative tools that we can use to solve old creative challenges. Incredible, mind-blowing tools, but still just tools. Tools for digital reality. How very normal.