The 6 Biggest Challenges Facing Augmented Reality
Augmented reality is an essential ingredient of many people’s vision of the future as a bunch of sci-fi movies describing. However, we are still at V1, with a clumpy headset, latent law issues and intrusion of individual privacy. The following passage expands on 6 major challenges in AR’s path to social acceptance, providing incisive insights in a reader-friendly way. It’s a tough road, but we have confidence in exploring more use cases of AR to build a mixed reality- digital elements interwoven with our surroundings. AR must move from a merely for fun gadget to a highly productive tool.
It takes 15 minutes to read.
Whenever I begin to think about the future, I can’t help but imagine augmented reality as a part of it. In my opinion, technologies like AR, AI, and self-driving cars are, in the long run, inevitable. They are too cool, too useful, and there are too many smart people working on them, for each not to eventually play a major role in our society. The specifics, such as apps, brands, and exact timing may vary, but the general concepts must eventually succeed.
Yet, as confident as I am in this augmented future, I am easily in the minority. Outside of r/augmented reality or NextReality, most people do not believe we will have functioning spatial computing… or at least not in their lifetime. So what gives? Am I so blinded by my personal desire for AR that I cannot see the obvious flaws?
Intuitively, AR fits into my mental picture of the future, but before staking the most productive working years of my life on this tech, I decided I ought to take a closer look at why augmented reality wouldn’t work. The following is a consideration of what I believe to be the top six threats to near-term AR adoption. Specifically, these are the factors that would prevent AR from becoming a regular household device, like an iPad or TV, in this wave of technological innovation.
Ultimately, I have no doubt that some form of AR will succeed. If Magic Leap, HoloLens, and Meta all fail, a different set of startups will sprout up over time. But for the sake of this analysis, I am contemplating threats to AR’s success in the next 10–20 years. For each threat, I first define the risk, then play devil’s advocate in explaining its legitimacy, and finally reason why it can be overcome. The risk factors are tackled in order from least to most intimidating.
#Lack of Use Cases
6. Lack of Use Cases
While considered “cool” and fun for gaming, AR never develops a truly useful purpose. Techies and gamers may find it interesting, but the everyday consumer never sees the need to purchase.
Why It’s Legit:
Just look at AR’s first swing at mainstream with Google Glass. Despite the backing of one of tech’s big 5, Glass died a swift death. People were intrigued, but no one could find a reason Glass was worth paying over $1,000. Even today, consider the struggles of virtual reality. Despite the millions of dollars invested in VR, only hardcore gamers are actually buying headsets.
Why It Can Be Overcome:
This is my lowest level threat for a few reasons. First of all, true AR is inherently useful. Google Glass, despite the now-forgotten hype, wasn’t true AR. It projected digital elements into your field of vision, but those elements had no understanding of the real world. Without computer vision or additional intelligence, it was essentially an iPhone on your face, but without easy and intuitive ways to interact with it. The next generation of AR that Microsoft and Magic Leap are working on will do much more than gaming or entertainment. Already Meta is working on replacing the desktop while Daqri already claims that augmented reality can increase manufacturing productivity by 30%.
Even if both of these projects fail, one thing we’ve repeatedly seen to be true is that people are fairly bad at predicting what new technology will be used for. Remember that most people thought the average consumer would have no use for a personal computer. More recently, don’t forget that the first iPhone touted its music playing and internet browser capabilities as transformative. Few predicted the impending dominance of GroupMe, Snapchat, and Uber that the iPhone enabled.
What’s important to note, is that we’re still at V1’s for all the current headsets available. The clunky, glitchy, 35 degree FOV headsets of today may not be particularly useful, but as we move onto V2 or V3, the use cases for bringing digital elements into the real world will be endless.
AR companies are unable to navigate the legal issues presented when operating at scale. Privacy and safety concerns lead to massive regulation, hobbling AR development.
Why it’s Legit:
Augmented reality hasn’t even reached headset form yet and we’re already seeing things like the Pokémon Go Death Tracker. As AR becomes more common, the government, either at the local, state, or federal level will be forced to strike back like they did in Milwaukee. Combine that with people’s disdain for being filmed unknowingly and you have a recipe for disaster.
Why it Can Be Overcome:
Don’t get me wrong, the privacy and safety concerns are real, but ultimately, because of the huge net positive AR offers, the legal issues will be worked out. When the public is exposed to something they want, they won’t let regulators get in their way of having it. A prime example is the 70-billion-dollar startup known as Uber. They’ve faced legal battles everywhere they’ve gone, but because they provide such a great service, they’ve slowly won pretty much everywhere. It also doesn’t hurt that Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple will all be on augmented reality’s side. These aren’t small startups anymore, they’re heavyweights, and collectively they won’t let government regulators get in the way of bringing a great product to market.
4. Digital Fatigue
Spatial computing… melding of digital and physical worlds… it’s simply too much. We love our television sets, we love our iPhones, but sometimes it’s nice to just unplug from the world. Having constant virtual information is simply exhausting.
Why it’s Legit:
It’s a fairly popular belief already that technology is destroying our society. In a 2016 article written for Time, Carol Becker, dean of Columbia University, said, “As a result of our “always-on” ethos, we have neither time nor space within which to lose ourselves in reflection.” Bringing the digital world into the real world only exacerbates that issue. Plus, if you haven’t seen the video, Hyper-Reality looks like it’s wayyyy too much.
Why it Can Be Overcome:
Unavoidably, augmented reality will have both benefits and unfortunate side effects. This is no different than any technology that has preceded AR. For example, email immensely improved workplace communication and productivity, but simultaneously created an “always available” work culture that is difficult to escape. The iPhone is one of the most beloved devices ever created, and yet its popularity is potentially contributing to a decrease in face-to-face social skills.
It is true, augmented reality could increase the time we spend interacting with digital elements. This could undoubtedly be a negative consequence, but I also believe there is an even stronger potential upside. Although we may spend more time with the virtual world, the time we spend should become more efficient and more connected to the real world. Currently, we are attached to our screens. In order to access all of the wonderful content available through our smart phones, we need to disengage from the real world and stare down. On a literal note this can lead to dangerous situations, but more importantly it forces us to constantly disconnect from what is around us. What augmented reality offers is the ability to be a part of the real world while still having access to the digital one. This means the ability to simultaneously walk down the street, check an urgent text, and follow map directions whilst maintaining a real world conversation with your friend.
And as far as overload goes, its just something developers need to be conscious of. Hyper Reality is too much, and there will be economic temptation to overload AR with advertisements. The right people need to set controls, and allow users to manage how much content they see. So far we have only wanted more digital powers in our lives and with the next generations growing up with even more technology, I don’t see this trend stopping.
3. Miniaturization Issues
The Risk :
It’s obvious that everyone wants a fully functioning augmented reality headset at the size of normal eyeglasses, but it’s actually much harder to make than people realize. Despite the best efforts of the top companies, the components can’t be made small enough in this short of a timeframe.
Why it’s Legit :
There are tons of tradeoffs headset makers have to consider when attempting to miniaturize their product. Field of view, computer vision, battery, the list goes on. All of these issues aren’t going to be fixed overnight. On top of that, there’s even some debate whether or not it’s physically possible to create a FOV of greater than 90 degrees in an eyeglasses sized headset.
Why it Can Be Overcome :
This will be no easy challenge, but I do believe it will eventually be solved. Many people like to point to Moore’s Law as the answer here, and although it may be a factor in helping to miniaturize AR, it is not the only reason.
Augmented reality is a race that Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have all entered. They each understand that this has the potential to be the next smartphone and none want to miss out. Due to these competitive pressures, each has an intense desire to not only build AR, but to build it quickly. Coincidentally, doing this should have a symbiotic relationship with many of the other projects they already have going on. As they try to miniaturize components for AR, they will be complementing their existing ventures. The chips that will power AR headsets will come from the chips that power current smartphones. The computer vision technology embedded in eyeglasses, will be the same that’s embedded in their self-driving cars.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, check out Microsoft’s latest prototype.
2. Poor Experience
The concept of AR is cool and useful, but in action, it always seems lackluster. Whether it’s poor resolution, inaccurate computer vision, or uncomfortable human/computer interactions, the actual experience never lives up to what it’s supposed to be.
Why it’s Legit:
Murmurs like have already begun to swirl around VR. Everyone would love a Ready Player One type metaverse, but the Oculus and the Vive don’t really provide this. At the moment, the resolution is too low on top of the fact that it’s not fully immersive and it makes people nauseous. Similar issues are abundant in development edition AR headsets. Although it is understood that this is still early days, the experience seems so far away that maybe what we dream of is still a technological wave away.
Why it Can Be Overcome:
Although the past is admittedly not a guarantor of the future, this seems to be a mistake commonly made with new technologies. When considering a new piece of tech, it’s easy to look at it in its current form and discount it for the future. Let’s look at the e-reader as an exhibit.
Although the Kindle became the first e-reader to experience mass market success, Amazon did not invent the idea of digital books. Companies and entrepreneurs had been building e-reader prototypes since 1999. But before the Kindle, the experience was very clunky. You had to plug the device into a computer to download a book and even then, there were barely any digital books available. This led Barnes and Noble to write off the e-reader as a category altogether. They figured the experience sucks, so people will just stick with physical books- they seem to work just fine. What Jeff Bezos realized was that at a fast-enough rate of technological development, the e-reader experience could change completely in a matter of years. In 2007, only eight years later, Amazon released the Kindle and sold out inventory almost immediately.
Currently there are some cool things you can do in augmented reality, but mostly the experience is still disappointing… and at the end of the day that is ok. The experience will improve and it will improve rapidly. It is not the AR of today that will be changing the world, but the AR of 10 years from now. As we just passed the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone, I think we all know how much things can change in 10 years.
1. Social Rejection
As interesting or cool as AR might become, people will never want to wear a computer on their face. It’s cumbersome, it’s weird, and it’s socially awkward.
Why it’s Legit:
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that people may be averse to wearing a headset. Could you seriously imagine someone outside of San Francisco with a $1,000 set of tech-enabled glasses on their face? Have you forgotten Google Glass already?
Why it Can Be Overcome:
Although many people like to point to Glass as an indicator of AR’s eventual failure, I like to look at Glass as an important stepping stone for AR’s eventual success. Yes, a lot of people pushed back against Glass in the moment, but in the process, companies like Snap learned a ton. It’s no secret that Snap is now working on entering the augmented reality fray, and although they did not include AR, their Spectacle glasses were Snap’s first step towards AR. An important feature of Spectacles is that their cameras light up and spin whenever someone is taking a video. This was a direct lesson from the Glass debacle as a main concern with Glass was that people didn’t like being recorded unknowingly.
As Snap, and others, forge their way into AR, the shadow of Glass will be present. They will not be releasing dorky looking glasses, even if that means only releasing consumer sunglasses for the near future.
Aside from Snap, the other worst kept secret in AR is that Apple wants to eventually be in the mix as well. As we’ve witnessed with phones, tablets, and watches, when Apple does something, it’s all of a sudden cool. It’s Apple’s M.O. to jump in when the technology is a little more developed, so I wouldn’t expect them to release anything soon, but when they do, there’s a good chance smart glasses won’t be dorky anymore. And remember, Apple doesn’t jump into markets unless they think they have the potential to be huge. I’m sure they’re aware that approximately 75% of adults use some sort of vision correction and about 64% wear eyeglasses. A transition from Warby Parker glasses to Apple Glasses doesn’t seem that farfetched.
Regardless of Apple or Snap, the reason I have confidence in AR overcoming social stigma is because AR will eventually be extremely useful. Whether or not it sheds its stigma in everyday settings, AR will be used consistently at work and at home. Would you care if you looked a little goofy if all of a sudden your work productivity went up 10%? Would your boss? Imagine now your job isn’t in an office, but in a manufacturing plant or on a football field where productivity is especially easy to measure.
AR faces a tough road. Nothing will happen overnight and there’s still a chance AR fails,
but when you break it down into individual threats, you can see that most are capable of being overcome.
By Matthew Busel