AR / VR – the Ultimate Winner

Now that the CES is almost over I did not want to repeat any write up of the well published new devices introduced by many companies large and small during CES. But what display centric topic can you write about that is not covered at CES?

My answer is to take a more philosophical look at the future of AR / VR devices. Just to make it clear, I am not trying to declare a winner in the AR / VR race but I want to look at what the users are really looking for in the coming years.

Here is a a very short retrospective view of the introduction of AR / VR devices where I am just going to describe what happened so far.


Virtual reality headsets have been around for a long period, but were limited to enthusiasts that were playing around with new display technology to create, basically, a wearable home entertainment system. With better and better display technology, introduced by the resolution war of the smartphone displays, a better VR experience was possible without any necessary large technology leaps. The biggest step was the move from the smartphone based systems to embedded display units with an overall better performance (still using the smartphone display panels though). Besides the display specification requirements, driving such a high pixel count display is a complete different topic. This is very comparable to high end gaming systems that can render enough pixels per seconds to allow for a fluent creation of virtual reality content. It still is a challenge to shrink this hardware into a format that can be embedded into the headset itself (no tethering) and still provide reasonable usage time without weighing several pounds. That is pretty much where we are today.

Ready One Player ScreenshotReady One Player Screenshot – Credit


With VR coming out swinging and getting all the attention Google threw in its hat into the AR headset market.

With a relatively simple optical combiner (a prism isn’t really cutting edge optical technology today) and a one eye only approach, the Google Glass was a well discussed prototype that never made it out of pre-production prototyping. In the simplest implementation, AR just acts like HUD by showing the user some information like incoming phone calls, temperature, etc. Adding a position sensitive sensor system would allow the user to get location based information, which maybe much more valuable (for example in a car). Head mounted displays were used for many years in aviation (mainly fighter jets) where the pilots gained a slight advantage by using these HMDs. Overall, AR systems have not penetrated any consumer market at this point in time, even though many large companies expressed an increased interest in AR as much more interesting technology.

Google Glass Content – Credit Wikimedia commons

General Observations

With AR / VR inspiring many investors to inject large amounts of money into the technology markets, many start-up companies are using these terms as a way to attract investors. Developing an app for seeing furniture being placed on your smartphone or tablet is certainly interesting, but not what I am talking about in this article. Leaving this part of the AR market out of the discussion leaves us with very little in terms of consumer success.

The real question I am seeing in this development is if indeed AR is the ultimate target from a hardware perspective?

From a technical perspective, a simple VR system like the Samsung Gear VR is a relatively easy to build. Creating the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive is much more challenging and still leads to devices that leave much to be desired when we think of VR as it shown to us in Hollywood movies. In reality, we have encountered issues like headaches and nausea attacking users in considerable numbers.

AR has the same issues as the VR systems discussed above, but adding the challenge of combining the photons from the information display with the optical wavefront of the real world surroundings. As a consequence AR will take longer to develop to the same performance as VR. So far so good, but will this really be true going forward?

Here is where the futuristic aspect of these technologies comes into play. When we look at Hollywood sci fi movies as the standard users are looking for, we can see that movies like Iron Man or Minority Report pretty much set a standard we can’t live up to today. However, looking at the functionality of the current AR devices such as Magic Leap or Microsoft HoloLens, they know what is required, they just can’t achieve the performance shown in these movies.

Looking at the VR world, we see two completely different approaches in the movies. Ready Player One pretty much takes today’s VR headset and makes us believe that a better resolution is all that is needed. The immersion into the provided content is up to the user and is driven mainly by the visual input. From using today’s headsets we know that this is not even remotely true.

On the other hand, Matrix makes you live in the virtual world as the only world you ever knew. Do you still wonder why everything you do not know tastes like chicken? You smell, you taste, you feel, you hear and you see what the system creates for you. Another example from the entertainment world is the Holodeck from Star Trek. Again this is absolutely real to the user.

Considering this task of a fully immersive environment, the real VR experience may be hundreds of years away from reality. Eventually reaching this point, we may create the real world in the VR world without any users recognizing the difference. But what would this require?

Wikipedia defines this as “Immersion into virtual reality is a perception of being physically present in a non-physical world. The perception is created by surrounding the user of the VR system in images, sound or other stimuli that provide an engrossing total environment.”

That is why I believe that VR is actually the more difficult task to get it right. The human brain is very complex and processes many different stimuli at the same time. Anything that feels out of place triggers responses like surprise, disbelief or worse. Looking at the visual stimulus alone, we are just getting to the point that we can overcome nausea in a reasonable environment. Add a roller coaster and the outcome gets worse quickly. We do not even have an optical system that provides the full pixel number humans are capable of differentiating with their eyes.

The issue is not just the display, but the whole infrastructure including display drivers, video cards, connectivity bandwidth, dynamic range color space, etc. This is without the content creation process and I do not even know how to create smells and movement on the fly.

So here is my view of the whole development based on Hollywood milestones:

  • Ready Player One stage (VR headsets for gaming fully adopted by consumers)
  • Minority Report stage – (AR devices aiding mainly professional applications)
  • Holodeck stage – (VR environment without glasses in contained spaces)
  • Matrix stage – (VR environment directly connected to the cortex)

How many years do you think this will take? More than the typical market forecast for sure. (NH)

(and, I suspect, more than the patience of capital providers! BR)