Visiting the Oculus office in Seattle: is augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) the future of user interfaces?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting the Oculus Seattle office for a private tour, some cool demos and a very interesting conversation. During the whole visit, a question kept popping up in my mind: will augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) ever become the standard way of interacting with our desktop or mobile devices?

User interfaces have evolved over the years in very significant ways: we moved from punched cards to command-line interfaces, and from there to graphical interfaces, which ended up evolving into what we know today, mouse, keyboard and touch. With recent advances in artificial intelligence, we are beginning to transition into conversational interfaces, where we can use natural language to get things done, sometimes even without touching a button or reading a line of text.

Is the future of user interfaces an (almost) invisible one? In many cases, yes, just watch the 2014 movie Her to see a glimpse of where we will be in a few years (minus the “falling in love” part):

However, for many other tasks we will still need to read, type, touch and draw. This doesn’t mean that we will be tied forever to a screen, and here’s where VR and AR come in.

The AR era has already started with projects like Microsoft HoloLens, the introduction of Apple’s ARKit or Google’s ARCore. In time, AR will move to external devices that feel like regular glasses but work somewhat close to this:

Unfortunately, the path towards that bright future will be rocky and often disappointing. The industry is still sore after the failure of Google Glass, and gimmicky features like Snapchat’s face filters will continue being the focus for a while.

VR has a very different future, since it will be reserved for a totally unique set of experiences. The end goal of VR is to make you feel like you are somewhere else: visiting the Grand Canyon from your couch, watching a movie or playing a video-game are just some examples of these immersive experiences.

As part of the Oculus demos, I was finally able to try Lone Echo and it left me speechless. Virtually floating in zero gravity helped me forget one of the biggest issues in VR games: the disconnect you feel when the character walks but you don’t. The overall experience was simply… out of this world, which is precisely the reaction they are trying to get, as one Oculus employee said when he heard me say it.

During the tour around the offices, we talked about the democratization of VR: today, anybody can experience VR by using a $15 Google Cardboard with pretty much any Android phone. The upcoming Oculus Go or even the future Project Santa Cruz are examples of how Oculus is learning from the limitations that the Rift has. All of these efforts are examples from an industry with a common goal: make VR reach critical mass.

Beyond VR, how far are we from those AR glasses? Who will be the first company to bring AR standalone devices to the mainstream market? And the million dollar question is, when will the industry focus on making that future a reality? Think about that the next time you see someone take a selfie with a dog filter applied.

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