Recently, Mark Zuckerberg-led Meta unveiled its Quest Pro Virtual Reality (VR) headsets for a hefty price tag. Meta assumes that Apple will soon unveil its much-anticipated offering in the space, which will be priced much higher. However, unlike Meta, which is betting big on VR alone, Apple is also looking at augmented reality (AR) applications for its headsets.

While there is little known about Apple's approach in this space, it would not be totally absurd to think that gaming is one of its priorities. AR gaming first shot to fame in 2016 when Niantic Inc launched Pokemon Go. Before this, only the geeks knew that AR was the name given to the underlying technology, but the world soon took notice of the unique application.

More than five years down the line, there hasn't been much AR talk, but the technology has been steadily improving behind the scenes and is expected to make a big splash in the coming years. 

What is AR gaming?

AR gaming integrates the audio and visual components of a game into the user's environment instead of creating an artificial environment like VR or most digital games do. Since gamers can be anywhere in any given location at a time, AR games cannot pre-program the environment and add components to them. Instead, they need to do this in real time using the environment that is available.

Gamers often seek new environments to explore inside games, which is a challenging task for developers. By using the user's environment as the playing field, game developers can offer a large number of playing 'canvases', thereby retaining gamer engagement for longer periods of time.

AR games can also be played using simpler devices, such as existing smartphones and tablets, and do not necessarily require dedicated hardware such as headsets that VR games do.

How is AR different from VR?

Recent conversations about creating engaging environments have largely revolved around Meta and how it is building a whole new digital world using virtual reality. Once a user puts on a VR headset, they are cut off from the real world and completely engaged in the digital one.

In sharp contrast, AR gaming keeps the user very much in the real world and overlays the gaming experience on top of it. No matter how engaging the gameplay might be, the user is always in touch with their surroundings and is more aware of where they might end up as they engage in game play.

Since VR environments are pre-created and can be preloaded onto the dedicated device, VR experiences can work with lower bandwidth internet connections. AR games, though, need to constantly engage with the game engine and therefore demand higher bandwidth internet connections.

Since AR gaming does not need a dedicated device, the barrier of entry for gamers is rather low as compared to VR gaming devices, which cost a few hundred dollars at their cheapest.

What took it so long

After the overnight success of Pokemon Go, AR gaming took a back seat and has somewhat declined. This has been partly because other technologies needed to deliver content to these devices still needed to mature to be able to deliver engaging games.

With the increasing availability of data from services such as satellite images and street maps, it has become easier for developers to create realistic game environments and make high-speed internet connections possible with 5G telecommunications technology that can now deliver them.

While VR headset makers are trying to pack as much processing power as possible into these headsets, device-independent AR gaming is considered by some as an idea whose time has now come, and they expect the concept to begin growing again. Interestingly, AR gaming can also be overlaid over virtual reality environments, creating mixed-reality experiences that may be more engaging than either of them alone.

As AR gaming bid its time to rise from obscurity, its development wasn't done in isolation, and it was aware of what ailed the VR gaming sector. Even after many years of mainstream gaming development, VR gaming is yet to deliver a game that has mass appeal.

Gaming companies have done little to reduce the high cost of entry for newcomers, and if recent product launches are any indication, these are only expected to rise in the future.

VR gaming is largely a closed system experience with no scope for device owners to explore other offerings in the space unless they buy into a new device. AR gaming, on the other hand, can work across devices and gives users freedom from multiple cables that tether them to a spot.

Limitations of AR gaming

Although AR gaming might seem to trump VR in most areas, it also has its own limitations. The low entry barrier to entering AR gaming may also be a pain point for AR gamers. Gamers only need to download the app on their smartphones or tablets to get started but holding the device for long hours is not convenient either.

Unlike VR games that can create a 360-degree environment for a gamer to explore, AR games have a severely limited view of their gaming environment, visible only on their device. This is also a major put-off for gamers who are used to big-screen gaming experiences.

The field of view limitation may be addressed by AR glasses, which are expected to be much slimmer in the future than the bulky VR headsets that are available in the market today. The other option for a bigger field-of-view experience is turning to game consoles, which can be connected to larger screens but with limiting the scope of the gaming environment.

Another area of concern for AR gamers is the need to keep sharing their location via GPS tracking throughout their gaming experience. This raises privacy concerns since the game maker will also seek access to GPS data to offer to play opportunities when the gamer travels to a new environment. However, it could also open up new revenue streams for game companies.

Who is joining the AR race?

Microsoft launched the HoloLens AR/mixed reality headset way back in 2016 and has been in the AR space for a significant period of time. In 2019, it also launched the second generation device, the HoloLens 2, and amid low interest from users, it is repurposing it for military and commercial applications.

Japanese technology major Sony, which has been a dominant force in the VR space, has been exploring opportunities in AR for a while and has reportedly filed a patent for an AR visor that will work across platforms, further increasing the appeal of its upcoming product.

Although Apple hasn't officially announced its intent to join the AR gaming world yet, it is expected to join the fray in the coming year. It will likely be that Apple's offering will offer mixed reality (MR) experiences instead of AR alone, and the Cupertino-based company has already opened up its developer space to toy with AR ideas.

Unlike 2016, when Pokemon Go was the only AR game that made the headlines, this time around, AR gaming is expected to open up a plethora of gaming options and experiences for users.