If you follow AR/VR, you already know Skarred Ghost. Antony Vitillo’s hype-free website is one of the web’s best destinations for news roundups, thoughtful commentary, and insightful interviews that dig deep into the complex issues overlooked by most news coverage.
What you might not know is that Vitillo’s expertise extends far beyond blogging. He is a tech entrepreneur with real-world experience developing AR/VR technologies. He also offers AR/VR consulting services, where he helps businesses implement AR/VR, and get real returns on their investment.
We caught up with him recently to talk about the state of spatial computing technology. We covered a variety of topics, including: how businesses should approach AR/VR implementation, the most valuable applications, the problems with AR/VR hardware and software, and how we can use the technology not just to make money, but to give people a better life.
Sean Higgins: What does the term spatial computing mean to you?
Antony Vitillo: It’s the possibility of jumping from a 2D screen to a 3D one, so we see all space as a mix of real elements and virtual elements. It’s about putting virtual data everywhere around us. To me, it’s something revolutionary and magical—I fell in love with it the first time I tried a VR headset.
That enthusiasm has led you to work as a blogger and an entrepreneur, but also as an AR/VR consultant. So I want to ask a hypothetical: Let’s say a business is looking to get into AR/VR, how should they do it to make sure they succeed?
Calling me is a good idea! But let’s suppose that there are no consultants in the world, you have a business, and you’ve heard about VR.
Probably the first thing you should do is document some use cases similar to yours. Look at applications in which VR has already been successful, because most of the time business use cases are similar. Maybe you just want to use VR for training. So read about how other companies have used VR for training. This will help you understand if VR is actually useful for you.
My second suggestion is to buy a headset. Buy a Quest 2, buy something that’s cheap enough. Use it as a personal tool. Play with it and experiment with the technologies. Try to understand if it really has the potential to do what you want to do.
And maybe if you have a team working for you, start developing. Make even a rough prototype to start testing if what you want to do is feasible. And then develop it and test it in the field, or hire someone to develop it and then test it.
A lot of people are convinced that AR and VR are ready to go, out of the box. Why is this testing part so important?
Because developing is easy. You can develop everything if you have money—with some compromises. But VR doesn’t live on paper, you have to test it. Then maybe you’ll realize that some of your assumptions are wrong.
Maybe you create the training experience that you have in mind, but it makes people want to puke because of the motion sickness, so it is not going to work at all. Maybe you assume that people will be scared by an explosion in VR, but they actually love it.
It’s a bit unpredictable, so it’s important to go through this process and do lots of tests and refinement. Then test the fundamentals again, do more refinement, and so on.
Any mistakes you would warn businesses against when implementing AR/VR?
Don’t expect it to be able to do whatever you want. There are always compromises.
Let’s take the HoloLens, for instance. It’s an amazing device, but the field of view is this big [holds up hands makes a small box]. So if you tell people, I want a giant screen in augmented reality, that’s not viable unless the screen is 50 meters in front of you and it’s tiny.
So in this case, it’s better having something closer to the user that he or she can focus on. That’s what I mean—find a compromise. You can always find ways to do something interesting, but don’t expect magic.
When you work with businesses that want to get into AR/VR, what applications are the most in demand?
On the enterprise side for AR, we’re seeing a big need for remote assistance. After the pandemic, there was this explosion—and everyone started asking for solutions that would make it possible for an expert to check in with a field operator. To see what he was doing, give him instructions, and so on.
On the VR side, there’s a lot of demand for the various training solutions for the enterprise, or for security training.
But what I have seen the most, the most required solution in AR/VR, is professional learning community (PLC) solutions. Even before the pandemic, it was one of the things that companies asked me for the most. They would say, We have this super expert operator and now he is he has to retire. How do we transfer his knowledge to other people? This is a big issue that all companies are facing.
Since you’re a big user of AR/VR yourself, and you test more of these tools than the average person, I have to ask—What applications are most interesting to you?
Something that fascinates me is the use of AR/VR in healthcare. There, it can save lives, or it can improve the lives of people. And that’s something that really makes me happy.
Every day, I see stories about this. I remember one article from about six years ago about how VR is used to rehabilitate people with spinal injuries. They use machines to make the limbs move, and at the same time the person could see the movements in VR. And the brain was able to process that so the person could move again. I was like, how is that even possible?
VR can also be used for treating eye disorders, or for giving psychological treatments. Here in Italy we have a genius who works on these applications, professor Giuseppe Riva, that uses the technology to give people a better life. That makes me very happy that there is VR and AR.
Let’s talk some more about your blogging. By keeping up with the news like you do, are you able to see how the technology is developing? Perhaps in a way that other people don’t?
I have noticed that lots of people say Facebook has won the VR war with the Quest. But those people don’t realize Facebook just won the first round. What I have learned by interviewing many people in the industry is that VR is going to be a very long journey. Very, very long.
I was talking a few days ago with Jake Zim from Sony Pictures. He oversees the development of games based on Sony movies, and he says we’re at the beginning. It will probably be a ten-year journey for virtual reality. The Quest has started entering the mainstream but it’s still a very long way to go.
If the Quest was the first round for VR, what’s the second round? What problems should someone solve to win it?
Well, I think that the answer depends a lot on the type of customers you’re talking with, what kind of technology they are using, and for what kind of application—so there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
So just let me provide you some examples. So you know that I’m working on concerts and events. In that case, the difficulty is not the Quest, that’s already good enough. The problem is the penetration of VR in the market.
The second problem is more on the software side. There is no software, for instance, if you want to do a concert with 50,000 people in virtual reality, watching the concert in the same venue in 3D, with realistic visuals, etc. It is not feasible at the moment—there just is not enough graphical power, there’s no suitable networking library, and so on.
So the problems aren’t with the technology itself per se but adapting it to different use cases. Is that the case with AR? What kinds of problems are you seeing there?
Let’s talk about people that want to use AR in their production processes. The big problems are the cost of HoloLens 2, and then the terrible field of view. For them, having a tiny window is a big limitation.
People working in the education field run into the problem that there isn’t a VR headset cheap enough that also offers the quality they need to provide lessons in a university setting. So either they stick with the consumer Quest illegally, or they have to buy an enterprise headset. But this is more costly because it costs $700-800—and imagine multiplying that by the number of students who need a headset.
Healthcare is another example. There is no headset that is certified to be used in a hospital, that is, in a super hygienic environment.
So, like you summarized: different verticals, different problems.
Given what you’ve told me so far, this might be a complicated question. Where are we on the hype cycle with AR/VR technology?
One of the articles on my blog that got lots of views was when both VR and AR went out of the Gartner hype cycle, which means Gartner was saying these technologies were mature. It was interesting, because this happened in 2018 or 2019, a moment where VR was not that popular in the mainstream. It was probably one of the worst periods for VR.
But the thing is that Gartner looks at enterprises and companies. And for them, VR and AR were already improving production processes. I agree that companies, if they were smart enough, already understood the value of AR and VR and how these technologies could help them.
So, for enterprises, we’re at the mature stage. Of course, the technology itself is still not fully mature. But with regards to adoption, and our understanding of how to use it, I think we have some kind of maturity.
Where are we on the hype cycle for consumer VR, then?
I think we are out now from the trough of disillusionment that lasted from around 2017 to the beginning of 2019. That was the winter of VR. As a consultant, it was very difficult for me to get any jobs. People would ask me about VR and then disappear because it cost too much.
Now, since the arrival of the Quest, some great VR games, and some good PR, we are out of the trough. I don’t think we are at complete maturity, but we are on the road to maturity. So we are at the final part of the curve.
How about consumer AR?
For AR, it is complicated. It depends on what we consider here. Because there is mobile AR, AR glasses, and so on. I think we are still around that trough of disillusionment—maybe for some technologies a bit after.
For mobile AR, there was a lot of hype at a certain point after the release of a ARKit, and we were in the hype stage. And then people realized that real-world applications of mobile AR were impossible because the form factor is terrible. It is terrible to hold the phone with one hand and see the augmentations only through a tiny screen! There are some nice applications like IKEA and Pokémon Go, but nothing more.
On the other hand, AR is having a big success in applications that use front-facing cameras and filters. With glasses, it’s going to take a lot of time to become useful. We are still in the trough of disillusionment.
Where do you think the technologies should go next? Any final thoughts about the future of AR/VR?
I want to see more push towards different kinds of experiences for all kinds of people. Right now, for me, the Quest is already good. But for my mother? If I put a Quest on her head, she won’t know what to do with it. There isn’t an application that is useful for her, with an interface that is good for her.
Recently I was reading about an article how there are no experiences tailored for the elderly. Again, we forget that different kinds of people have different kinds of needs. We should always consider all kinds of people and all kinds of possible applications. We need to make AR and VR interesting and useful for everyone.