VR/AR: Which will win the race to mainstream adoption? The answer is neither. Bet on Project Tango

It takes a village to raise a child, but I found out recently that it takes an entire civilization to build a 5-dollar toaster. A few years ago, Thomas Thwaites set out to make an electric toaster from scratch, using items that could be extracted from the earth. Upon picking up a cheap toaster from the nearest store, he pried it open and peered inside to find, to his dismay, up to 400 separate parts made up of over 100 different, hard-to-source materials. What he had assumed to be a simple piece of cheap, late 19th century machinery was actually a labyrinth of technological intricacy that would take a lifetime for one individual to try reverse-engineering.

To me, that toaster represents an object lesson in why technology can be so successful: The less you know it’s there, the better it works. When’s the last time you fired up Google Maps and thought to yourself, “This GPS is amazing!” You haven’t. In fact, you probably didn’t give it a second thought. We only know that a technology has truly become mainstream when we’ve forgotten it exists. It fits seamlessly into what you’re doing—such as using a phone or driving a car.

There’s been much talk lately about how virtual reality (and augmented reality) will change our lives. I personally believe that VR and AR each have a long road ahead of them before they can truly become successful mainstream technologies. What we really need is an AR/VR technology that has potential to disappear—that we can take for granted, just like GPS.

Just so we’re clear on this—I love virtual reality. My first experience with VR was intense. It was like looking through a window into a parallel dimension, my physical self disappearing behind the headset over my eyes. What I saw could best be described as a vague composite of several day dreams I had back while half awake in Ms. McFadden’s middle school class – a character in a Piers Anthony novel, or navigating, Gibson-like, through a post-apocalyptic sprawl. It was what “being transported into another world” actually meant in real life.

I’d like to think that this type of technology can make it into the mainstream despite its inherent limitations. Chief among them is the common complaint that the headsets look slightly ridiculous—and that no technology that’s required you to put on special glasses or headsets (i.e., Google Glass, 3D TV, Virtual Boy) has been able to catch on with consumers. I see this as a mere stumbling block—VR simply has too many game-changing applications in enterprise that will lead it to eventually find its beachhead among casual users. Perhaps headsets are just a stepping stone to future immersive technology, but one thing is clear, 2016 will probably not be the year of VR, as many pundits have claimed.

We've all known for quite awhile that the future of mobile devices is going to be tied into some form of computer-mediated technology such as VR or AR. Virtual reality offers experiences and applications beyond what anyone could anticipate. Augmented reality, which overlays virtual information over the real world, is still developing its real-world applications. But it’s quickly catching up.

This is why quite a few major manufacturers have been hitting the market of late with an array of consumer VR headsets, all selling their own pockets of immersive virtual realities, with promises to enhance gaming, content and shopping experiences for everyone. It seems inevitable that VR or AR will eventually reach most consumers and businesses, though the current path seems to rely more on sheer brute-force computing and technological advancement than anything.

In order to hit that coveted mainstream adoption rate, we need to take a closer look at how these new technologies can more properly fit into our lives. And the key is how they can truly disappear as a technology for slow adopters, as did the GPS in a smartphone.

When examining potential applications in her consumer studies, AR researcher Ana Havornik asked a key question about augmented reality in the Harvard Business Review: Are consumers really going to walk down the street holding their tablets or smartphones in the air? By the same token, are people really going to be strolling through a mall with a VR headset over their eyes? This doesn’t sound like technology disappearing into the background. It sounds, rather, like technology that imposes, making itself the center piece of our experiences, while offering limited practical value in return.

Havornik’s conclusion was clear: We can only change our behaviors if we see the value being worth the effort of grafting another layer of information onto our external environment. But how do we do this consistently with VR and AR?

For that, we need to talk about doing something completely different. We need to talk about Project Tango.

What’s Project Tango?

Okay, wait—let’s back up. What is Project Tango?

This will get you started: Project Tango is a set of sensors that enables augmented reality experiences on your smartphone. More importantly, it has the potential to get into everyone’s hands faster than either AR or VR. Why? 

Let’s take the phone or tablet that you’re probably reading this on. Your device knows you’re reading this article, and because of GPS, it probably has a fuzzy idea of where you are on a map. It also knows a great many things about your browsing habits. But what it doesn’t know is whether you’re inside a room or outside of a room. It doesn’t know whether you’re standing up, sitting down or lying down on your bed. It doesn’t know how far away you are from the closest door. And it doesn’t know where you put that blue sports bottle that you take with you to the gym. In short, your phone or tablet does not have any information relative to the space it inhabits.

A smartphone that has Project Tango, however, is equipped with sensors that can capture over 250,000 measurements a second, scanning for information on position and rotation. It processes this information through three core technologies—motion tracking, area learning and depth sensing, which adds augmented reality features to your phone, like a third eye. Motion tracking allows this eye to “see” its own location in 3D space. Area learning tells it what room it’s in. And depth perception lets it perceive the shape of the world around it, detecting surfaces and obstacles.

You can say the technology behind this is a bit more complicated than that of Thomas Thwaites’ toaster. But again, all we really care about in the end is the toast. Project Tango makes your phone able to understand the space that it’s in. Your phone will know where it stands relative to the closest bathroom. It’ll know what stands in the way between you and that bathroom. And it can take you down the shortest path there, or to wherever else you need to go—if you’re lost, for instance. Remember when I mentioned GPS? In the future, this would serve as augmented GPS—something you’ll be taking it for granted once you’ve used it a few times.

And unlike the promise of AR, there are immediate use cases that should quickly and quietly seep into your daily life, much like your phone’s calculator or compass. A Project Tango phone knows, for instance, the location of a wall’s four corners in actual, physical space. This means you can measure the length and height of your wall, and then measure that glass-door wall cabinet you’ve been eyeing at IKEA to see if it fits. Or don’t even measure the cabinet—just map it so that it becomes a virtual object you can move around to see how it looks in your apartment.

At the moment, Project Tango allows your phone to know where a table is, where the sofa sits and where you’ve placed your desk. That means you can display a virtual kitten, for instance, in your living room that can jump on your sofa, crawl under your table and sit with you at your desk.

Democratization

The kicker for Project Tango is that it actually opens up for consumers one of the easiest and quickest paths to true democratization and mass acceptance of augmented reality experiences. As I’ve mentioned before we’ve already seen some near-term limitations for VR in terms of pricing, user skepticism and adoption from major developers that may take some time to overcome. Only hardcore PC gamers currently have access to the powerhouse computing hardware that’s needed for today’s VR sets, and AR requires even more computing power.

That said, I have no doubt that VR and AR will eventually come of age as a mainstream technology. But Project Tango is a technology that’s available today, and can be built into most devices that we already use – phones and tablets – and which you won’t need to strap around your eyes to use effectively. For VR, true democratization may require shipping glasses or headsets with every smartphone, or creating head-mounted displays that can work with every smartphone on the market.

But it would not be cost-prohibitive to integrate Project Tango into every phone and tablet, if there were a market for it. So before the advent of VR and AR, I’m going to place my bets on a piece of technology that promises to disappear from our lives once we start using it. Because at the consumer adoption level, it’s not about pursuing innovation for the sake of innovation—it’s about striking the easiest path for consumers to capture the best of new technologies, and offering them applications which make sense.

The first phone that’s Project Tango enabled is coming near you. You can find out more about this device here.

The future of Project Tango

What will be available on Day 1 of Project Tango is just a small subset of its potential. As an AR technology, your Project Tango device can channel the spatial information it collects to create a 3D world based on your surroundings. It then overlays virtual information onto the 3D world, tethering reality with a stronger bond than anything that has come before it in the AR space.

Once objects are mapped into the universe of Project Tango, virtual content can engage with the physical space across multiple environments. It's not hard to visualize how this would work. Think of a game in which you and your friends are being tracked by stormtroopers as they chase you across a park, over a hill and through a shopping mall. Or visualize a future in which you want to find that super-valuable 1959 Fleer Ted Williams card to add to your collection, and your phone's screen traces a path that leads directly to the nearest establishment that carries it.