Material Gains
The Role of AR and VR in Longer, Better Lives
Even a small amount of virtual assistance can improve our quality of life.
It may seem surprising that the automotive heads-up display (HUD), an aerospace-inspired innovation, was proposed by designers as far back as the 1960s. It took until the late 1980s to reach production. Interest among OEMs and electronics brands has surged recently. As an increasing quantity of information is pushed at drivers from autonomous functions, driver-assistance features and connected services, today’s HUDs provide graphical and text overlays on top of the view through the windshield to aid concentration and improve safety.

Augmenting reality by overlaying computer-generated images and information on our view of the world can help us in many other important contexts as well. AR is increasing productivity in the workplace and is entering the medical arena. Surgeons are beginning to appreciate the benefits of AR, like a graphical overlay from a scan or x-ray image taken previously, which can show important information about the patient during an operation, alleviate distractions and improve outcomes.

The potential to improve our quality of life, particularly in later years, is also extremely exciting. The World Health Organization predicts that more than one in five people will be aged 60 years or older by 2050. Bringing the technology to an even wider audience is particularly important as we try to handle challenges presented by an aging population.

Where possible, people will need to keep working and living independently into later years. And as we age, many of us become somewhat forgetful, at best. However, with just a small amount of assistance from AR (and other technologies such as facial recognition), to discretely overlay the names of people we meet in our field of view, we can overcome some of the milder degenerative effects and interact in more natural ways without obvious assistance. There are also opportunities to help protect people against fraud perpetrated by strangers posing as acquaintances or relatives, for example.

AR’s more immersive cousin, VR (virtual reality), could help us live more contentedly as we age. “VR bars” are an emerging phenomenon, currently aimed at younger socialites and the tech savvy to offer enticing other-worldly experiences. Only a pinch of imagination, however, is needed to contemplate recreating nostalgic environments, such as an ’80s rock gig or ’90s nightclub that could take older people back in time to interact with others in a familiar and comfortable environment. A scenic walk or slow-paced cycle ride, on the other hand, could encourage activity and mobility in elders. Groups could share the experience, enabling those otherwise at risk of isolation to feel engaged and connected, while enjoying the convenience and comfort afforded by participating from their own home. The technology to support this is ready now. The application development and marketing are critical ingredients of the mix that need to catch up.

Affordability is a part of the marketing mix to address. Innovations that involve cutting-edge technology typically need a successful high-volume application to generate sales revenue and create demand, both of which drive technical progress and enable the economies-of-scale needed for more niche applications – such as medical and healthcare equipment – to become economically viable. As far as AR and VR are concerned, the gaming market can provide that driver. Gamers’ enthusiasm for high-performing PCs and consoles sustains a global hardware market worth about $50 billion. The AR and VR gaming markets, although younger and smaller, are growing quickly from a current base of about $3 billion in the US alone. More importantly, major computing pioneers, including Google, Facebook and Microsoft, seek a market edge by acquiring AR and VR startups. That expertise could give them an advantage in developing solutions across a variety of applications and markets, including retail and industrial, as well as health and aging-related applications.

Of course, the more tightly we weave connected technologies into the fabric of our daily lives, the more serious the consequences if they become compromised by cyberattack. This can range from “bricking” devices to prevent them from being used, to more sophisticated attacks that take over equipment and manipulate the responses. The results could be inconvenient, dangerous, or even potentially deadly if the attack involves an exploit like disrupting a surgical procedure.

As a technology ambassador, I believe in the power of science and innovation to help us deal with our challenges and goals as we seek to improve quality of life for as many people as possible. On the other hand, we must be discerning and realistic about the technologies we create. They will elicit both positive and negative human responses, which must be considered seriously to inspire better quality innovations. Some of the most challenging are the ethical issues that arise as we seek to make medicine, healthcare and elderly care more efficient and effective.

We can never expect every new technology simply to fulfill our needs and desires without raising questions and introducing challenges. Overcoming these is every bit as important as perfecting the underlying engineering.

Alun Morgan headshot
Alun Morgan
is technology ambassador at Ventec International Group (ventec-group.com); alun.morgan@ventec-europe.com.