Robin Roberts of ABC News' Good Morning America conducted an exclusive interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook where they talked about the iPhone 7, the new AirPods, VR and AR. Here are my comments on Tim's remarks.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are related but distinct forms of media. VR creates the illusion of putting the user in another world, such as an exotic or fictional location, interacting with virtual objects or characters. AR also creates virtual objects or characters for the user to interact with, but places them within the user's existing surroundings.
Tim Cook believes that AR will be bigger than VR because AR allows people to remain present with each other and perhaps jointly interact with the same virtual object. On the other hand, VR encloses the user in an immersive but isolated experience. Tim nonetheless affirmed Apple's interest in VR, "There's some really cool areas there for education and gaming that we have a lot of interest in."
I agree with Tim that AR has a larger commercial potential and I also agree that the ability to interact with other people will be essential. Where I disagree with Tim is whether that interaction necessarily has to be within the same physical space.
Sure, if I'm in a conference room with someone else, AR would be more useful so that we could talk to each other about the same virtual object. On the other hand, if we were not in the same physical location, AR might not necessarily serve that purpose very well. For example, a virtual object might look ok on top of my table, but that space might be occupied by a laptop in my counterpart's location.
By contrast, it is possible to be in a virtual room and see an avatar of the other person, regardless of our respective physical locations. This virtual interaction is already happening in VR social apps such as AltSpace and VTime, and in multiplayer games such as in the military sim Onward (HTC Vive) or the bow-and-arrow wave shooter QuiVR (HTC Vive).
In any case, AR and VR technologies are not necessarily incompatible with each other. I believe future smartphones will be capable of both. For example, we could have a phone that supports both Project Tango and Google Daydream (or a future iteration thereof). In AR mode, the smartphone would use its external camera to present a realtime view of the world, but superimposed with virtual objects. In VR mode, the smartphone could use the AR depth sensors for VR positional tracking, while also presenting an immersive VR view of another location.