We're right on the edge of dual revolutions in artificial reality and augmented reality. It's an exciting time because we're in the final days of a world in which these technologies are considered "futuristic." By next year, early adopters will have them in their homes. Within three years they'll be mainstream.
But I've buried the lead. The real story is that virtual reality and augmented reality are practically the same thing and will be served up to us in breathtaking and unexpected ways.
What's the difference?
Both augmented and virtual reality involve computer-generated objects, people and text, which appear real or almost real to the person experiencing them. The difference is in the environment. In virtual reality, the environment is also computer-generated, whereas in augmented reality, the environment is real life.
In the 1980s, when the virtual reality concept first came into the popular imagination, it was something like the Holodeck first introduced to viewers on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation in September 1987. In that vision, virtual reality was a complete — and completely convincing — alternate reality indistinguishable from the real thing.
Popular culture got its first mainstream look at augmented reality in The Terminator. In that movie, the robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger looked at real-world objects and received data about them, along with options for actions to take, scrolled into the periphery of vision.
In the one case, virtual reality replaced reality. In the other, reality was annotated. But now that the technologies have evolved to the brink of mainstream usage, it turns out that these early visions barely resemble the realities we're about to have access to.
Let me give you some real-life examples.
A secretive startup called Magic Leap was in the news this week because Google is leading a $500 million round of investment in the 100-person, Florida-based company.
Not much is known about Magic Leap's technology, other than the fact that extremely knowledgeable people who have experienced their demo have come away astounded.
Apparently the company can create convincing, high-resolution 3D images that appear to be in the physical space right in front of you.
This basic idea fits neither the virtual reality nor the augmented reality paradigms. The environment isn't simulated. And reality isn't augmented. (It doesn't identify a real elephant and tell you about it; it creates the illusion of an elephant that isn't really there).
The company has trademarked its own label for the technology: Cinematic Reality.
Placing virtual objects in real spaces and having them interact with real objects requires a computer understanding of where all the walls and floors and ceilings and surfaces are.
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