Why augmented reality might just outshine virtual realty

The Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headset on display
Stephanie Keith | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Virtual reality (VR) technology might have hogged the spotlight this year with a variety of possible business applications, but experts claim that augmented reality (AR) will also have a key role in our digital future.

AR overlays the real world with digital information or virtual objects, with one example being Google Glass. Whereas, VR immerses a user in a completely virtual space.

"Smart glasses" using AR tech will allow users to interact with all sorts of objects in the real world, according to technology research firm Forrester, who has outlined some of the potential uses for AR in a report published this week.

"Although consumer applications of AR are few in number today, we can already see enterprise applications where field technicians use AR smart glasses from (product maker) Atheer to operate hands-free while wearing the devices for hours at a time every day," the report said.

"Add this kind of utility to nearly any customer service and support function, and you can see why AR will be a more persistent presence in people's lives — and more vital for marketers — than VR ever will."

Forrester's report estimated the demand for virtual reality headsets in the U.S. will mean there'll be 52 million devices in the country by 2020.

For specific industries, AR tech could lead to significant productivity boosts. For instance in package warehouses, AR glasses could provide workers with specific directions to a product that need to be dispatched.

"When they reach the relevant aisle or shelf the glasses will highlight the product that needs to be 'picked' and the bar code can be read by the camera on the device updating the stock management system," explained Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, in an email to CNBC.

A reference model of the Sony PlayStation VR viewer is on display with a PlayStation 4 system during a press event for CES 2016 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on January 5, 2016, in Las Vegas.
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Using AR to provide remote diagnostics is becoming popular in the automotive industry, according to Wood.

"A mechanic working on a car can wear the glasses and be guided as to the order with which to remove particular bolts or cables and also how to reassemble the engine afterwards," he said.

"For a really complex process, a remote engineer (would be) able to see what the mechanic on the ground is doing and provide a commentary on how to fix the problem."

The Microsoft HoloLens, an augmented reality (AR) viewer, being demonstrated in California
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Earlier this week, Microsoft threw its weight behind "mixed reality", a form of augmented reality where users can interact with virtual objects through gestures and voice commands, at the Computex IT trade show in Taiwan.

It was promoting Windows Holographic, a computer operating system which could help developers create mixed reality and augmented reality applications for devices such as the AR HoloLens headset.

With several prominent devices being released this year, including the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, expectations are high over the potential of VR and AR.

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