Augmented and virtual reality: An IT leader's introduction

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are vying for IT leaders' attention as the "next big thing." Here's a quick primer on what what they are, and how IT can prepare.

Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

"Virtual reality will grow, just as the telegraph grew to the telephone—as the radio to the TV—it will be everywhere."

While the above quote may sound like it was pulled from a recent analyst report on the emergence of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), it's from the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man, a reminder of the last flurry of interest and activity in the VR space that fizzled out nearly as quickly as it captured public attention. Recently, interest has been rekindled in AR and VR, and you could be forgiven for feeling that we've all seen these prognostications before and can safely ignore this technology once again.

What are augmented and virtual reality?

Like most emerging technologies, there is some confusion and overlap to the terms augmented reality and virtual reality. At a basic level, AR entails the presentation of digital information as an overlay on your visual reality. Consider a car that projects maps and directions onto the windshield, augmenting your view of the road with information about traffic and the next turn. A more sophisticated AR could also display objects with which you can manipulate and interact. For example, a consumer might use AR glasses to display a new couch in his living room, and then use his hand to move the virtual couch around the room, change its color, or swipe between different styles of furniture.

SEE: Mini-glossary: Virtual reality terms you should know

VR suggests a more immersive experience, where one or more of your senses are provided with a computer-generated or cinematic reality. A great and low-cost VR experience that uses your existing smartphone can be had with Mattel's new VR View-Master. Load the app, place your phone in the plastic View-Master, and you can be transported to space, Roman ruins, or an African savannah, with graphics that far exceed what we experienced in the 1990s, all for around 30 dollars. The View-Master can also be used like a Google Cardboard device, so it's compatible with most Cardboard apps you might find in the Google Play store or the App Store.

It's easy to see the applications in industry for these technologies. AR could allow a remote technician to phone a friend who can provide expert diagnostic assistance from across the world, or allow an assembly line inspector to view checklists and inspection manuals while looking at a part. Designers and engineers could view and manipulate virtual 3D prototypes right from their desk, while an executive could have a live financial dashboard projected on her glasses as she reviews company performance. VR might seem like the more science fiction technology, yet there are also compelling applications. An engineer might virtually inhabit a robotic drone operating in a hazardous area, while a surgeon could practice a complex operation at the kitchen table.

Why now?

While these applications are exciting and interesting, in many cases they are similar to the applications of AR and VR being touted in the 1990s. It's easy to point to cheaper and better technology as the key difference, but we've been living with Moore's Law for decades, and it did nothing to stir VR from its dormancy until now. One contributing factor that's changed, however, is that most humans have now experienced a limited version of AR and VR in the guise of the smartphone. It may offend purists to suggest that the early BlackBerries were AR devices, but they essentially augmented our physical reality with digital information. During the first predicted VR revolution, the idea of getting a phone call, let alone a picture or digital message from anyone at any time, was far-fetched, yet now it's routine to see whole families staring at screens while sitting at the dinner table. Without so much as an Oculus Rift or HoloLens, we've essentially been augmenting our reality for years.

SEE: Why virtual reality could finally mend its broken promise

Moving the digital content we've been consuming from a smartphone to a wearable device is more like changing the channel than first experiencing television. Despite some early failures like the consumer adoption of Google Glass, as these devices become lighter and less conspicuous, interacting with our digital world that's presented in our field of vision will ultimately replace the comparatively clunky smartphone.

What does this mean for IT leaders?

Despite the hoopla, the AR and VR revolutions are still in their infancy, except for some key functional roles, primarily in design, engineering, manufacturing, and field support. Rather than buying a dozen VR headsets, consider how your IT infrastructure will adapt and evolve to a state where IT is more about capturing, analyzing, and presenting data than building monolithic applications. If you've been actively participating in the transition toward mobile devices, you're likely already thinking along these lines. The true asset of IT will be in the conclusions it can draw from massive amounts of data, and the presentation layer will ultimately become a personal decision of the data consumer. Start planning for this migration today, and you'll be prepared for whatever mobile, augmented, or virtual reality heads our way.

Also see


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox