Photo Credit: Gorillaz
The first augmented reality concert in history was fittingly performed by the virtual band Gorillaz, who took over Times Square in the heart of New York City a week before Christmas 2022. To watch the show, New Yorkers downloaded the Gorillaz Presents app and pointed their mobile phones skyward to view a live performance by band members 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel playing high above as giants standing on skyscrapers.
This type of merger between the virtual world and the real one is called mixed reality. And many industry professionals believe it is the future of connectivity.
What Gorillaz fans saw on their smartphone screens is just a taste of this emerging technology. A smartphone is not the most immersive way to view a mixed reality experience. Such is the objective of smart glasses—which for the most part do not yet exist in any meaningful way.
Smart glasses connect humans and computers in a blended physical and digital environment. Augmented reality (AR) is part of that experience: AR overlays virtual objects onto the physical world and as Gorillaz showed its fans AR can be really exciting.
But why hasn’t AR caught on? The reason may have a lot to do with the rocky relationship between AR content and the requisite hardware.
The glasses are half empty
Technically speaking, AR isn’t new. The technology has been used by the United States Air Force and NASA since the 1990s; decades before that, in 1968, pioneering computer scientist Ivan Sutherland created the Sword of Damocles (shown above) – history’s first head-mounted augmented reality display.
A few of us might remember when id Software turned Quake into the world’s first outdoor augmented reality video game. AR Quake was an ambitious, slow-moving mess of a game that required a headset and backpack computer to play.
Even back in the year 2000, AR Quake felt more like a swindle than a revolution.
It would take nearly two decades to remove the foul taste of AR Quake from our collective mouths. It wasn’t until Pokémon GO in 2016 that got consumers interested in augmented reality again. In just seven months, Pokémon GO amassed more than 500 million downloads and singlehandedly brought AR back into the tech conversation.
Augmented reality is here—that much is apparent. But it isn’t completely real yet. And that has everything to do with the lack of smart glasses on the faces of internet users. The iPhone brought about the smartphone revolution in 2007. Is a smart glasses revolution in the cards any time soon?
The AR world is still waiting for the killer app
Think of the 1979 spreadsheet program VisiCalc: a $200 piece of software that compelled shoppers to drop another $1,300 on the Apple II PC that ran it. That’s a killer app. Jurassic Park was the killer app that sparked the CGI explosion in movies. So, what is the killer app that transforms augmented reality from an interesting technology to a must-have technology? Some people are suggesting that it will again come from Apple.
Apple Glasses were once projected to debut in 2019 but have been progressively pushed back to their current status of indefinite postponement. A different project, the Apple VR/AR headset, is expected to debut in 2024 for around $3,000. A lower-cost $1,500 version should follow soon after.
The upcoming Apple VR/AR headset is more reality-based than a VR headset which fully immerses its user into a totally virtual world. But it is far from the perfectly blended mixed reality consumers have been hearing about since the days of Google Glass (which, by the way, failed as hard as AR Quake). Apple’s mixed reality headset will run on realityOS software and plans to convert a completely virtual world to a mixed reality experience via pass-through cameras. Think of it as the Apple version of the Metaverse.
Are digital humans the answer?
It is going to take one killer app to get consumers to give up their smartphones. That killer app might be digital humans. Digital humans are AI characters created specifically to interact with us actual humans. They are like avatars but not virtual. They are augmented and move through our blended world, interacting with us through the mixed reality universe. Right now, they are used to answer virtual questions or to sell actual products virtually.
Digital twins are virtual versions of us. Right now, companies like Unreal Engine, Apple and Meta are working to create digital twins. These AI avatars are intended to take our place when the actual versions of ourselves aren’t readily available.
Now, imagine digital twins of legendary athletes. Their actual statistics and skill levels have been uploaded to an AR server. And with the use of AR glasses, we can go head-to-head with them in mixed reality.
As you approach the court, you see a handful of players involved in a pickup game. They are digital humans, but you’re rocking your immersive augmented glasses. So, to you, these ballers are as real as anyone else. But these are not just your average, run-of-the-mill digital humans. They are Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant.
Pretty exciting to think about, right? Such are the types of possibilities that could usher in the AR revolution when paired with the right hardware.
Joe Deez is a professional writer, unashamed tech geek, and pop culture enthusiast. He teaches young people to handle adversity by using humor and he plays vintage Atari games in his spare time.