ANOTHER new year, another debate on whether virtual and augmented reality will become, well, a reality.
Not delivering on what’s been promised, gimmicky ideas, a focus on escapism – a few of the grenades thrown at the industry in an article by entrepreneur Sarah Ronald, who runs design consultancy Nile.
But she is not writing off the technology: in fact she believes applications such as driverless cars are on the way. “Facebook and Microsoft are doubling down their investment in AR and VR technologies,” says Ronald in the article published on Linked-in.
“They firmly believe that headsets will replace smartphones and laptops as “our primary means of interacting with data and each other” in future. The problem with that prediction is the tendency to vastly downplay how slowly both the technology and the experience of VR is developing.”
In a nutshell, augmented reality (AR) adds digital information to the real-time view you see through your smartphone or tablet. It can be practical, such as opening times of a museum or a deal in a restaurant, or can be used in gaming such as Pokemon Go.
The main player is the app Layar, which made its name in tourism. It can add huge volumes of information on places you’re visiting, or add historic videos of where you are, for example.
Virtual reality (VR) demands a player, like Oculus Rift, that allows you to view a completely different reality to the one in front of you. It might be animated, or real, and you can move around 360 degrees as if you were physically there.
But while VR is proving useful in tourism for, say, visualizing a downhill ski run, its AR that is proving more practical in bringing places to life for visitors – not in a huge way, but in small, incremental steps that help illustrate the technology to visitors, while teaching tourism businesses how better to tell their stories.
Down here in the West Country, where I live, there have been several projects utilizing AR, with a common theme of using historical figures to explain what modern day visitors are seeing.
Salisbury Cathedral was one of the partners in an England’s Heritage Cities app that launched in 2017, which brings alive the Countess of Salisbury from the 13th century to introduce the cathedral’s Magna Carta, the mysterious death of her husband and the cathedral’s 1,000 years tradition of choral music.
A similar approach is being taken on the nearby Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which is developing the Time Traveller on The Chase app to launch this summer. It will use characters such as author Thomas Hardy and explorer/archaeologist Augustus Pitt-Rivers to introduce the places and stories of The Chase to visitors.
The app will feature 10 places on The Chase and its gateway towns, which include Salisbury and Shaftesbury. It can be expanded in future, so could include current another AR project now under way to show how Shaftesbury Abbey looked in its prime before Henry VIII ordered its destruction.
Cranborne AoNB has won £140,000 in EU money to develop the app, and English Heritage Cities was supported by the Discover England fund, as AR is rightly recognized as a stimulating way to share information with visitors.
But there’s the difference – if given public money, then a sound proposal must be drawn up and the product delivered to a schedule. When its seed and funding money, entrepreneurs can easily be sidetracked down dead-end streets. Which is where Layar has inadvertently fallen.
Layar was bought in 2014 by a UK start-up called Blippar which recognized Layar as a ‘key pioneer’ in bringing AR to mobile devices – but Blippar has since lost its way, said the BBC, despite being rated as a billion-dollar company.
The main complaint about Blippar is that it became unfocussed, that it tried to launch too many products. The BBC quoted one employee saying: “Find a niche and commit to making Blippar the expert in that niche, rather than trying to be and do everything. It’s changed strategy so many times it’s hard to trust what they believe.”
A row over money is also a factor, but the fact is Blippar never made money. What happens to the company now is unknown but there are plenty of other AR outfits happy to steal its space. The relatively small-beer innovations in tourism will continue but the bigger picture? Let’s renew this debate in a year’s time…