Neither virtual reality (VR) nor augmented reality (AR) are new technologies. They have been in use in the military as well as in some civilian applications for the past many years. However, their widespread adoption by individual users is a more recent phenomenon, which can be largely attributed to the increasing smartphone penetration and the growing uptake of technologies such as Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift. AR and VR technologies are available in various formats, offering significant diversity in terms of design, programming, applications and accompanying accessories.

VR generates realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user’s physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment. Thus, a person using VR equipment is able to interact with virtual features or items in an artificial world. For instance, a person sitting in India may be able to view a virtual rendering of the py­ra­­mids of Giza using VR equipment such as Google Cardboard.

In contrast, AR shows a direct view of the physical, real-world environment, which is augmented by computer-generated sensory inputs such as sound, video, graphics and GPS data. Thus, a person using AR will have an enhanced perception of the real world in real time. For example, a person walking on a road and using AR may be able to view not only the road but also additional information like the ambient temperature and air pollution level. Unlike VR, AR does not require dedicated equipment, and can be accessed directly through a smartphone. However, dedicated AR equipment such as Google Glass is available in the market, which helps im­prove the user experience using AR tech­­nology. VR/AR headsets are the most common VR and AR equipment used.

Applications and accessories

Both AR and VR have a variety of applications in smartphones. VR is used broadly for entertainment, research, proofs-of-concept applications and gaming purposes. AR is used mainly for navigation, interior/ exterior design, translation of signboards and gaming. VR and AR can also be used for training and simulation purposes. The most popular use of AR has been in gaming applications. VR has found more use in simulations and video streaming. The accompanying box provides a snapshot of the popular AR/VR applications being used worldwide. Further, AR can work without accessories. While Google Glass was a popular AR accessory, it is currently being rede­signed and its expected date of launch has not yet been disclosed. Other popular AR accessories include Cast AR and Meta. How­ever, these are quite expensive. Popu­lar VR accessories include Google Card­board, Day­­­dream View, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

Adoption challenges

Although AR and VR hold fascinating future prospects given their immense potential and wide range of applications, they face significant challenges in terms of adoption. The cost of the AR/VR accessory/equipment is a key challenge for users. The price of VR accessories varies from Rs 200 to over Rs 90,000. Thus, it is not surprising that in certain cases, the cost of VR accessories exceeds the cost of a smartphone. The cheapest VR accessory available in the market is Google Cardboard. It can be manufactured by various third parties and certified by Google. The more expensive VR accessories include HTC Vive, Daydream View and Oculus Rift. Si­mi­larly, for AR accessories, prices may be equally high. Meta glasses, for instance, cost over $950. However, AR is better positioned than VR in this respect as a smartphone can be used as an AR device in some cases, thus eliminating the additional cost.

Other challenges are related to the processor speed and RAM required for running VR and AR applications. Most smartphones, particularly low budget ones, do not have the required processor speeds and RAM. For instance, most Android AR/VR apps require at least 3 GB RAM and a processor speed of above 1.5 GHz (quad core) to run smoothly, a specification level available only on medium and high budget smartphones. Many AR apps also require a fast internet connection to operate seamlessly in real time. VR apps too necessitate a high volume of downloads owing to high video resolution of content. This imposes additional constraints on users as mobile internet in India is relatively slow, especially in Tier II and III cities and rural areas. But given the increasing broadband penetration in the country, this may not be a major hindrance in the future.

Future prospects

Given the open source manufacturing of Google Cardboard, which has reduced its price, as well as cheaper and faster mobile internet, both AR and VR hold strong grow­th prospects for the future.

In addition, these technologies would receive a major fillip with the expected growth of the internet of things. For example, the head-up display (an AR device) in vehicles, which provides additional information such as incoming traffic, road congestion, navigation directions without requiring drivers to take their eyes off the road, will improve road safety. These devices are already in use in some select models and may become more popular in the future, increasing the use of AR.

Meanwhile, giants like Google and Net­flix have entered the VR segment. The integration of VR with the entertainment industry is expected to grow in the future. Fur­ther, the prices of VR accessories will fall over time, leading to inc­reased adoption.