Iron Man Isn’t Real, But Could He Be? Why AR Technology Has Not Taken Off Yet

Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that enhances its users’ perception of the physical world by presenting computer generated information through a wearable device.[1] It differs from its counterpart, Virtual Reality (VR), which generates a completely artificial environment through a wearable device.[2] Perhaps the most recognizable example of AR technology appears in the 2008 Marvel blockbuster movie Iron Man, when Tony Stark first puts on his Iron Man helmet and it begins projecting information onto his surroundings.

While Iron Man is a fictional character, the immersive AR component of his suit is, in fact, based on existing technology that has been around for some time. However, truly practical AR technology is still a significant ways away from being developed to its fullest potential. There are two principal reasons for the slow development of immersive AR; the emergence of newer technologies with more immediate production potential and the lack of an established industry leader pushing the AR agenda forward. These obstacles are unfortunate, because there are several different facets of society that are poised to benefit from maturing AR technology.

  1. The emergence of newer technologies with higher potential have stunted the growth of AR.

The first reason why immersive AR is still a ways away from being developed to its fullest potential is the emergence of new technologies with more immediate production potential.

While the public perception of AR may be that it is something relatively modern and useful, current technological developments such as automation, intelligent assistants and big data are overtaking it. AR technology is, in fact quite old, with the first AR headset being developed in 1992 by Louis Rosenberg at the United States Air Force Armstrong Labs.[3] AR’s lack of development since then has decreased its value over time, as the rest of the technology world has continued to innovate around it. Some thirty years later, AR is now unsuccessfully competing against these new technologies.

Rosenberg in 1992 testing his Virtual Fixtures headset at the USAF Armstrong Labs. Some Rights Reserved, Technical Report AL-TR-0089, USAF Armstrong Laboratory, Wright-Patterson AFB OH, (1992).

Automation is the technology that allows machines to perform certain tasks and processes with minimal human assistance.[4] Intelligent assistants are virtual software agents that can perform certain tasks for individuals based off specific commands given to it.[5] Big data is a field that analyzes data, extracts information from it, or deals with certain larger, more complicated data sets that commonly used software tools cannot process properly.[6]

These technologies are stunting the growth of AR by proving to be much more efficient in terms of productive advantages. AR is designed to enhance the capabilities of humans while these newer technologies employ machines to surpass the abilities of humans. These machines are more efficient, more reliable and more accurate than people.[7] For example, Amazon has been integrating automated machines into their warehouses that are capable of scanning goods coming down a conveyor belt and placing them in custom-built boxes.[8] According to some former Amazon engineers, these machines pack “600 to 700 boxes per hour,” which is equivalent to “four to five times the rate of a human packer.”[9]

Because of their immense potential, these emerging technologies have pushed their way to the forefront of technological innovation and in the process, stunted the growth of AR.

  1. The AR industry lacks an established leader to push the AR agenda forward.

The second reason why immersive AR is still a ways away from transforming society is the lack of an established industry leader to push the AR agenda forward.

Most, if not all, technological developments in history have benefited from competition between firms striving to spearhead the industry. As soon as a company gains the upper hand it must fend off competition by innovating and refining its product, which bolsters the technology and attracts even more competitors into the industry, creating a positive innovation cycle.[10]

The smartphone is a perfect example of this process. In the early 2000s, BlackBerrys were the first functioning smartphones and an immediate success. Competitors strove to manufacture their own smartphones and differentiate themselves from BlackBerry. In 2007, Apple developed the first touchscreen smartphone, the iPhone, and shifted the industry’s balance of power in their favor. Now, in 2019, Apple is striving to stay atop the smartphone industry, forced to continuously innovate as competition from brands such as Huawei, Xiaomi and Google force the company to continuously innovate or lose market share.

The lack of incentive and competition in the AR industry, combined with the rise of emerging technologies such as automation, intelligent assistants and big data, has caused firms to allocate their resources elsewhere. Companies like Alphabet, for example, have attempted to develop AR hardware, most notably the unsuccessful Google Glass. However, a lack of urgency from consumers and competitors has seen Google shift focus to other projects, such as Google Stadia (video game streaming through cloud computing), Project Wing (drone delivery system) and other high-profile research and development projects.

Ad for the second version of the Google Glass AR project. Some rights reserved, “Google Glass v2.” Retrieved October 1, 2019. https://images.app.goo.gl/DvkF6JjiiTYXbVo89.

AR has been around longer than smartphones, yet it has never seen a company dedicate itself to being the industry spearhead (like BlackBerry did with smartphones) which would further the technology by fostering competition and innovation.

This lack of an established industry leader is a big reason why immersive AR is still a ways away from transforming society.

  1. However, there are several different facets of society that are poised to benefit from maturing AR technology.

Despite the two main obstacles impeding the development of immersive AR technology – the emergence of newer technologies with more immediate potential and the lack of an established industry leader pushing the AR agenda forward – there are still several facets of society that are poised to benefit from maturing AR technology.

There are three sectors of society in particular that could stand to gain significant advantages from AR: the public sector, the military and the commercial sector.

               The Public Sector

One way that the public sector could benefit from AR technology is through the development of 5G and eventually even 6G mobile networks. The development of these networks is being dubbed the “Tactile Internet,” which will allow for revolutionary human-to-machine and machine-to-machine interaction.[11] The South Korean Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) claims 5G networks will allow AR applications to “send and receive packets of data at speeds that match human perception.”[12] Another aspect of the public sector that would benefit from functioning AR is healthcare Immersive AR technology coupled with 5G communication speeds would allow for remote healthcare to become mainstream by eliminating many logistical costs of the traditional system.[13] The implementation of remote surgery, diagnosis or imaging out in the field would ensure quality health and medical care on a larger scale than available today.[14]

               The Military

AR technology could also benefit the military by providing its soldiers with competitive advantages in battle, namely through Tactical Augmented Reality systems (TAR). The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development & Engineering Center (CERDEC) is heavily involved in ongoing research to develop wearable TAR technology for its soldiers.[15] This technology would be worn as glasses and could provide a plethora of crucial benefits to U.S. service members. Some of these advantages include showing a soldier his real-time position relative to allied and enemy forces and allowing him to communicate information immediately to squad members through a wireless network.[16] The U.S. Air Force has already begun implementing AR technology by superimposing crucial data, such as spatial orientation and weapons targeting, onto their pilots’ visors in order to improve their situational awareness in combat.[17] The eventual adoption of AR by the military could help retain a competitive advantage for soldiers on the battlefield.

               The Commercial Sector

The commercial sector could also benefit from maturing AR technology, namely through leisure and consumer activities. One way that AR technology is already being applied to boost convenience and sales in the retail industry is through smart mirrors. The technology company MemoMi developed a “Memory Mirror” that allows customers to virtually try-on products in real-time without putting on the clothes.[18] Additionally, technology start-up Oak Labs developed an AR fitting room equipped with their Oak Mirror. The Oak Mirror virtually detects items that customers bring into the fitting room and includes AR tactile technology allowing customers to request different sizes, colors or items based on their preferences, which are then delivered to the fitting room.[19] Furthermore, start-up company Wannaby developed an AR phone application called Wanna Kicks, allowing users to virtually try on almost any pair of sneakers.[20] Based on these small-scale innovations, a full-AR experience seems like a very realistic future for retail shopping.

These three sectors – public, military and commercial – are only a few of the many possible facets of society that can benefit from maturing AR technology.

Conclusion

AR technology is something that has been around for some time now, and despite never gaining enough traction to evolve into a technological staple of society, there is still potential for it to develop in the future.

Despite the several facets of society that would stand to benefit from maturing AR technology, there are two main elements that are slowing the development of immersive AR; the emergence of newer technologies with higher potential and the lack of an established industry leader to push the AR agenda forward.

While these factors are not necessarily ‘death sentences’ for AR, something will eventually have to counteract their effects if we are to see AR develop to its fullest potential and finally deliver us Iron Man!

 

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