The future of augmented and virtual reality in entertainment

Image by szfphy from Pixabay

It may not take as long as you might think for augmented reality (AR) – and virtual reality (VR) – to become an integral, everyday part of our consumption of entertainment-focused media.

The value of virtual reality has long been recognised and depicted on the small screen in the form of Star Trek’s holodeck, a fully interactive virtual environment with which you can physically interact, and Ready Player One’s OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe that humans basically live their everyday lives inside as the planet sits on the brink of chaos and collapse.

The storytelling potential granted to both filmmakers and game designers by both AR and VR is immense, allowing them the ability to create or recreate specific environments or even whole worlds in which the audience or players can become entirely immersed.

We’ve already seem some attempts to integrate this kind of technology into gaming through Pokémon Go!’s use of augmented reality (which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, mostly depending on your choice of smartphone) and virtual reality headsets such as the Occulus or HTC Vive which work brilliantly for some and make others feel seasick.

The technology definitely isn’t perfect yet and there are many refinements that could – and will – be made in order to make it truly commercially viable, user friendly and good value for money. But in the meantime, here are just a few ways in which this futuristic tech could be used to level up your post-work entertainment…

AR post-Pokémon Go!

It wasn’t so long ago that no one had even really heard about augmented reality. And then Pokémon Go! was released and everything changed. The technology didn’t even really need to work right for people to start getting excited – even the mere promise of something close to virtual reality was enough to get nerdy hearts all over the world singing with excitement. What gamer wouldn’t want the chance to actually live a game in the real world, at least in some way?

Perhaps more importantly for game developers, AR works best on smartphones and/or tablets and most people in developed (and undeveloped) countries already have one or both. Traditional gaming platforms such as the Xbox or Playstation require specialised equipment and confine users to a single location, whereas AR offers freedom and mobility turning the entire world into a gaming environment. Snapchat filters use the same technology; toy giants such as Hasbro and Lego are hoping it will breathe new life into old toys; and Apple, Google, and Snapchat have all released AR platforms in recent years.

There are two possible futures for AR in gaming: developers can take a tethered approach where users will need to pair their smartphone with some kind of headset or a standalone option that will be more expensive to create but far more convenient for users. Much needed improvements to the current technology include a better field of view, increased brightness and battery life, and 3D sensing capabilities. Investment in AR is pretty steep right now and most companies are waiting for the necessary components to become more readily available – but consumer demand definitely supports jumping headfirst into development to make this technology a reality.

VR headsets

It’s looking increasingly likely that gaming will be the industry that delivers workable, consumer friendly VR technology that may become mainstream in the consumer sector even before it reaches the business world (imagine it though: virtual offices really could mean the end of the daily commute). Unlike office workers, gamers aren’t pressed for time and are willing to spend time working out how virtual environments function, particularly if the game offers full immersion in the experience.

Over the years, new innovations in gaming technology have added 360-degree views of more realistic environments and haptic feedback through controls (see the Nintendo Switch, among many others), which VR takes a step further, giving users the desirable illusion that they are actually part of the game itself.

Of course, the technology is very much still in development and there are obvious limitations to the systems currently on offer. For example, game designers are still working on creating flawless virtual worlds that properly orientate direction, adjust to gamers’ movements in real-time, and accurately understand which part of the virtual world the player is interacting with at any given moment. There’s also the aforementioned seasickness, which is caused by discrepancies between the virtual world experienced by the mind and the real world experienced by the body.

However, experts predict that despite these challenges, the technology will go mainstream within the next five years or so, and anticipate an eventual world in which players can manipulate a game on a screen with the wave of a glove equipped with motion sensors. It’s even possible that we might see VR that can manipulated by a player who can move through the artificial world while remaining completely sedentary in the real world. Whether this is a good idea is up for debate of course but it’s not going to stop the industry reaching for this science-fiction level technology.

VR and film

Some filmmakers have already begun making films specifically for virtual reality but it’s unlikely that the technology is the future of the format. Five years ago, the world-renowned Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program proved to be a launch pad for the VR filmmaking boom but in 2019, creators had already started branching out and incorporating a slew of other technological advancements into their films, including augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and connected devices to create more dynamic ways of storytelling.

Many of those creators are independent studios with the larger, more mainstream and traditional studios – including Disney – just starting to dip their toes into virtual reality-based content. Disney brought their first-ever VR animated short to the festival this year, while 21st Century Fox brought a VR experience based on hit Matt Damon vehicle The Martian just three years previous. VR films have started attracting the seven-figure acquisition deals that are normally reserved for standard 2D films, however, who sold their movies to studios or cable outfits.

Filmmakers are just starting to look beyond the formats provided by headset manufacturers like Oculus, Samsung and HTC as they are not necessarily cost effective, comfortable, or user friendly like the traditional cinema or home DVD experience that moviegoers are used to. Innovators are now looking for new platforms or backing away from the technology completely. For filmmakers, the future of VR lies in innovation and development to find ways to adapt technology that works well in the gaming world to the film world.

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