The history of AR and VR: from gimmick to business problem solver

The history of AR and VR goes back longer than anyone would have expected. When Charles Wheatstone invented the stereoscope in 1838, he didn’t know it, but his 3D image creation would spark the augmented reality and virtual reality boom that is predicted to infiltrate business and society in the next 10-15 years.

While the first VR head-mounted display (HMD) was created in 1968 by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland, “there was no name for AR when we started in 2011,” says Beck Besecker, CEO, Marxent. “We called it hologram technology at the time.”

In its current form, AR and VR, while gaining popularity, remain on the relative fringe. But, as the technology advances and awareness grows, adoption rates will skyrocket — across social and business environments.

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A gimmick?

Marxent published the very first application of AR in November 2011 on the app store. And back then, it was very gimmicky and built largely around marketing campaigns where people were trying to find a use case for AR and VR that had broad scale opportunities. So, the places the technologies landed, naturally, were in gaming: Pokemon Go and the anticipated Harry Potter AR experience, are examples of AR success in this space. VR, as well, has made an impact on the gaming world, with the release of VR games, consoles and headsets.

The opportunity

On the commerce side, there is an opportunity for AR and VR in the home vertical, in particular; use cases like bathroom, kitchen and living room design, along with new home conceptualisation.

There are two reasons why this space turned into an opportunity:

1. It’s not gimmicky; there’s a real problem to solve which is people really want to be able to design and visualise their space in as realistic a way as possible before they make a significant purchase. AR and VR are solving an actual design and visualisation problem.
2. The cost of creating this 3D content is still quite high. “And with categories in the home, it just so happens that most of the digital inventory you’re going to create, so things like outdoor decking, kitchen cabinets, furniture, stay in inventory for quite some time, they have a long shelf life. So the point is if you spend $100 creating a 3D version of this specific sofa, you can amortise that cost over several years,” explains Besecker –– CHANGE.

He continues: “Now, you have the combination of being able to amortise the 3D cost, plus you have the real problem to solve in terms of design and visualisation, and you’re starting to get somewhere.”

“The biggest problem to solve, for AR and VR, is to get these solutions to scale” — Besecker

The AR VR turning point(s)

Both technologies were viewed as quite gimmicky add ons, until opportunities emerged to apply them to tangible use cases, such as in the home vertical.

But what changed? Did the technologies advance enough to add value? Or, did awareness around the benefits of the technologies improve?

There’s a bunch of reasons. And, one of the main ones, is getting over the hype — the stumbling block for many emerging technologies. They’re proclaimed saviours and silver bullets, but when they fail to live up to that hype, interest diminishes, even if they do solve real business problems.

This is why, crucially, vendors and providers must not declare VR and AR the whole solution — and this realisation, spurred adoption rates. The technologies need to work in conjunction with other innovations and across different lines of business to create real impact.

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A component of the supply chain

AR and VR, at their best, provide the visualisation of a larger supply chain.

“It’s much more about managing, distributing, tracking and integrating into the information system, digital asset management system, reviews, pricing and the rest of the ecosystem to make a sale,” explains Besecker.

AR and VR are not the headlines; they’re a component that’s part of the larger supply chain.

AR VR adoption

Approximately two years ago, a slew of retailers and manufacturers asked these questions of AR and VR: ‘can I test it, does it scale, what is the cost, what’s the return on investment?’. Today, those questions have been answered, and adoption rates in these industries are rising. “Four years ago we had two clients, and now we have 25 who are transitioning from pilot projects into production,” says Besecker, as evidence of this. “I think 24 months from now you’ll see 50 to 100 major retailers leveraging AR and VR tools in a broad scale way.”

Simon Brennan, VP at Engage Hub, agrees and reveals that: “AR and VR are already being used by large, online and instore retailers in an effort to make the customer journey more immersive and appealing. IKEA, for instance, is using Amazon’s AR view to help customers visualise how furniture will look in their home before purchasing it. They are perfect technologies for customers who prefer ‘ease of use’, allowing the public to ‘try’ before they buy, and adds serious competitive advantage to both online and in-store experiences for retailers.”

Peter Sheldon, senior director strategy at Magento, an Adobe sees the immense value AR (and VR) can bring to this space, but says that “the use of augmented reality in retail goes far beyond furniture and fashion: its rise in popularity goes hand in hand with the increase of high consideration purchases made online. Although technologies like VR have been amply used in car showrooms, forward-thinking automotive distributors are bringing AR to digital commerce, making it possible to purchase without ever needing to speak to a salesperson. Thanks to AR, customers can not only make sure their new ride fits in their garage, but also get a feel for all its customisable aspects.”

“While consumer retail will always be characterised by the most innovation, the B2B market is set to surpass B2C in size — and the modern B2B buyer is not willing to settle for subpar experiences. This means sectors like construction and manufacturing will also see an increased use of AR technology: for example, buyers looking at products on a supplier’s website can get a better idea of the equipment they are purchasing — not from a look-and-feel perspective, but from a strictly practical point of view –and verify whether it fits in the factory or construction site.”

Looking forward: 3D content and platforms

A lot has been made on the cost of AR/VR devices, their ease of use and functionality. Moving forward, this won’t be a problem; the hardware will catch up with the software. Instead, it’s much more about the creation of content that makes it useful enough for people to buy these headsets and the emergence of common use cases.

“If you look at YouTube, it wasn’t really a phenomenon until it got content contributors — content always lags the hardware, but we’re really starting to see that mature now,” says Besecker.

In the next two years, the conversation won’t necessarily concern AR or VR. Instead, the headline will centre around the generation of 3D content, 3D platforms, distribution systems, contributors and user-generated content.

“This is the beginning of why 3D matters – it will present a much more engaging method of distributing advertising campaigns across different channels,” predicts Besecker.

See also: 10 innovative AR and VR companies to watch – exploring a selection of the hottest augmented reality and virtual reality providers in the market today

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...