Facebook's purchase of Oculus Rift in 2014 was, at the time, seen as confusing. It was, however, the spark that ignited an entire industry, pushing companies to move forward with VR experiences and devices like Samsung's Gear VR, HTC's Vive and Sony's PlayStation VR. As that popularity grows, so has the industry of augmented reality (a term dating back to a Boeing engineer from the 1990's), which Digi-Capital estimates, along with VR, to be worth $150 billion in four years' time. Instead of VR's approach in which the device immerses the user in a world of their creation, AR takes a user's reality and "augments" it, adding to or changing the world that the user can see. Many companies have emerged in the space, including Magic Leap, which has raised over $1.1 billion in funding despite relative secrecy and Meta, which recently debuted a headset that augments the world around you, but requires a PC connected to work and is yet to ship.
Occipital, which has raised over $20 million in two fundraising rounds, has been shipping their Structure Sensor since late 2013. The device itself clips onto the back of an iPad or iPhone, allowing you to 3D scan objects in real-time, play a selection of augmented reality games, or (in partnership with Uraniom) even add a 3D scan of your face to a custom avatar to use in popular PC games. To Occipital's VP of Marketing Adam Rodnitzky, there are many advantages to AR over the current virtually immersed and physically "tethered" experience that many people find with virtual reality devices. "A common misconception about VR is that users can roam freely in a VR world," said Rodnitzky. "While this is true to some degree thanks to today's nascent positional tracking systems, it's not uncommon for the real world to unexpectedly get in the way when a user starts to actively explore in VR. It could be a couch, your dog, or even just the mass of cords connecting your HMD to your PC. Sooner or later, you're yanked back to reality because you run into it before you actually perceive it." That tethering is what makes experiences like Oculus frustrating for some, with a giant cable to remind you that you're not really training to be a Space Pirate or a bird.
Occipital remains a rarity in the world of augmented reality, with many others that have made it to market relying on physical markers that must be placed in the real world to generate an AR experience. Though Meta has demonstrated their new headset to some success, the Meta 2, which projects augmented reality onto the user's field of vision, is said to not ship until the third quarter of this year to pre-order customers, including developers. This means that a consumer product could be a while away, though how far will be dependent on the adoption of the platform itself. Magic Leap, despite a detailed piece in WIRED from April, still remains light on details of release. The impressive technology works as "mixed" reality, using advanced technology to project objects onto the real world without another device. The downside is that at present it may still require a cart, leaving technology fans having to wait for many years for the chance to use it in their homes.
In many ways the augmented reality industry is reflecting the experiences of the virtual reality industry at an accelerated pace. As evidenced by Nintendo's Virtual Boy, an unsuccessful attempt to consumerize VR, rushing to get a product to market before its time is a bad idea. As a result, AR is taking its time on research, development and industry testing, which while sensible to some extent has grown to a point that some industry insiders are suspicious. The solution may be to quickly deliver products to enthusiasts and developers as quickly as possible as Occipital has, as even convincing demonstrations like Meta's can only keep potential users excited for so long. And with the cynicism growing around former valley darling Theranos, consumers, investors and developers alike may grow worried if they aren't mixing reality very, very soon.