All of us probably remember the year 2016 and the phenomenon that was 'Pokemon Go'. No matter where you went you saw people running around with their phones in their hands trying to catch virtual monsters inserted into our real-life environment. For a number of people this would have been the first time they would have recognised the technology that mixes our real world with a simulated one.
These new digital ways of interacting with your surroundings are based on a technology called “mixed reality”. It mainly consists of virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR). VR is an artificial, digital recreation of a real life setting, which is normally achieved by wearing a headset consisting of head-mounted googles and a screen in front of the user´s eyes. The user´s feeling of being physically present in an imaginary world is simulated by generating authentic images and sounds. The fact that you can 'move around' and interact with virtual features makes you believe that you are experiencing everything first-hand. AR technology layers computer-generated elements on-top of an already existing reality. Normally this can be realised by an average smartphone - all it needs is a camera and a screen.
Combined, the two technologies are already used in the entertainment industry but it would be wrong to link them only to this area. The healthcare, fashion and construction industries are also benefiting from them. For example, surgeons, soldiers and pilots are training virtually to prepare themselves for challenging real life situations. VR and AR tools support architects and industrial concerns to gain insights into how the planned product or construction should look at the end of the relevant process. These tools help identify and solve problems in the early stages of development. Moreover, the technology also facilitates the treatment of autism, depression and psychological conditions like post-traumatic stress disorders.
This year, apps that display virtual stores, have proven that mixed reality can also support us in our every-day life. Now, for example, you can start previewing furniture virtually up close within your own home. Or, if you are in need of new reading glasses but you do not have the time to visit a store and to try frames on, there is an app that helps you to try them on virtually. Additionally, education systems benefit from VR and AR with apps that allow the user to get to know foreign places and learn about different cultures and languages.
At the moment, most of the VR goggles on the market still lack sufficient convenience, style and affordability, so the next big challenge is to make the technology really consumer-friendly by developing glasses which you can wear all day long without them limiting your ability to interact with your environment. Apple and other companies are already working on evolving these kinds of products. Developers are also working to enhance the overall illusion by stimulating more senses like your smell and taste.
In the field of medicine, the next major development will be 'remote surgery'. This kind of surgery will enable a doctor to perform a surgery on a patient even though the two of them are physically at different locations. Instead of the surgeon, a robot will carry out the actual manoeuvres based on the instructions it receives.
In a similar vein are remote inspections of areas that are inherently dangerous for humans to visit, such as sites with nuclear contamination. In these cases, VR and AR are being used to get an overview of an area and then to send out drones or robots to fulfil certain tasks while observing from afar.
There is also good news for the online shopping fans among us: the general vision of the industry is that any brand or retailer will be able to create discovery-based shopping experiences. This means, compared to the 'standard' ecommerce offering, where every product online essentially looks the same, consumers will be given the digital opportunity to purchase things in the same way as if they actually went to a store.
Sport is another interesting area. Did you ever dream of sitting in the front row in a stadium and watching your favourite team play in a key game? These tickets are so often just too expensive or already sold out. Proponents of AR foresee that you will soon be able to experience games as though you were actually sitting in one of the front row seats.
Even the way we shop for our groceries in a supermarket may change significantly in the near future. The idea is that consumers will walk through the store wearing a pair of virtual reality glasses, or just simply use their smartphones to call-up on demand not only a product's ingredients but where it was grown and from where it was sourced, including details on the grower's chemical usage and labour practices.
Looking further ahead, experts are even talking about the opportunity of using VR and AR to insert chips into human brains in order to modify them, to create perfect memories, to enable brain to brain communication and to expand humans' learning capacities. This is definitely not something we expect to see in 2018, but there is no doubt that we will only see the use of VR and AR continue on its upward trajectory next year.