A lot of the excitement around the metaverse is focused on VR tech. Emergen Research estimates that the market for metaverse technologies reached USD $49 billion in 2020, with an expected CAGR of 43.3% until 2030 when it’ll hit $1,607.12 billion. And while those numbers cover a full range of tech, from VR and AR to XR, it’s VR that has been getting the most media talk time of late.
Perhaps that’s because AR is less flashy, more subtle; most of us now have access to AR tech via our smartphone cameras, and it’s been integrated into the social media apps that millions of people use every day, including Snapchat and Instagram. It’s not an other-worldly experience in the way that VR is.
According to Peggy Johnson (CEO at Magic Leap), however, “the true promise of the metaverse comes with augmented reality.”
Why is AR the metaverse tech to watch?
With VR, you have to put on a headset in order to enter into a virtual environment and leave your physical environment. “With AR,” Johnson said, “you have a heads-up experience. You still see your physical world in front of you, but digital content can be overlaid in that world. So that’s, I think, where we’re heading.”
And this ‘heads-up’ experience will form the basis of a valuable enterprise product, as well as a consumer product. It’s “a world that enterprise can really leverage,” Johnson noted, “when you can put digital content that you can interact with, that you can modify, you can annotate, you can take that content and send it into your existing IT infrastructure, that’s what businesses can leverage for solutions they need right now.”
If this is true, and AR offers value to companies and consumers that goes beyond the potential of an immersive VR headset, then we have to consider why we’re not there yet: why haven’t industries joined up the dots and integrated AR tech into their operations?
For Johnson, it’s because we’re only just getting to the point in AR tech development where users can really see its value. “If users don’t see value in this technology, if it’s just an innovative thing, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Now, with AR tech becoming increasingly user-friendly and functional, its value is finally becoming apparent. Magic Leap 2 is the most immersive AR experience available to date — and it’s smaller, lighter, and faster than its earlier iterations. Crucially, it can also do more than one thing; while many of the other devices hitting the market serve a single purpose, the new generation of the Magic Leap headset offers a fully immersive world.
“I can set digital content on the table here, look away, and I look back and it’s still there,” Johnson explained. “And then I can take that content and I can modify and expand it in front of my eyes. I might be working on a design of a car with you, and you might be in a different area of the world, and we’re both working on the same virtual design of a car in front of our eyes, and we can both annotate it.”
Healthcare is a strong use case, but AR isn’t limited to one industry
A number of healthcare enterprises are already using Magic Leap to deliver services and training. Brainlab, for example, is using the technology to develop 3D versions of brain imagery, so that surgeons can be pre-trained for specific surgeries on the pathways they’ll take during an operation — planning every detail of a surgery before they even touch the patient.
California-based neuro-technology company SyncThink announced a collaboration with Magic Leap back in 2019; they’re using AR eye-tracking tech to assess brain health in real time. And vision-care company Heru has also partnered with Magic Leap to develop an eye health diagnostics and visual augmentation tool that could change the way that people are tested and treated for vision impairments.
At present, healthcare is a strong use case for AR, and one that Johnson spoke of in detail. But the future of Magic Leap, and of AR in general, isn’t limited to just one industry — it has potential capabilities across all industries, and as a consumer product too.
Can we expect AR to follow a familiar trajectory?
“We have launched a program to get these devices into the hands of our customers,” Johnson said, and “those customers are giving us feedback so we can solidify a true enterprise device. These devices have to fit into a customer’s existing IT infrastructure, for instance, so it’s been a great learning cycle.”
Looking into the future at the trajectory of AR, Johnson said she likes to think of it as similar to the early days of mobile phones: “They were a bit big, they were costly, but they served a purpose.” And their value lay in that purpose — they enabled travelling teams to call back to the office with ease, and gave them time back, which translated into a real ROI.
“That’s the stage we’re in with augmented reality,” Johnson said, “over time the device will get smaller and lighter. In fact, our second generation device is about half the weight of the first one, it’s about 20% smaller, and that is the trajectory that mobile phones took as well.”
If this prediction comes true, we can expect to carry our AR devices with us everywhere we go in the future. And when that happens, we really will be living in the metaverse.