Why virtual, augmented, and mixed reality are the 4th wave of tech

Consumer computing platform changes aren’t straight lines, they’re waves. PC, internet, and mobile were the first three waves, and each was faster, larger, and more disruptive than the last. Now the fourth wave of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality is bearing down on us, so let’s dive in.
Growing up in the surf teaches you a thing or two about waves and how to read them. One of the things you learn is that waves are not solitary creatures, and they always come in sets. So the fourth wave is actually a set of three overlapping waves: virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.
Virtual reality places users inside the virtual world, immersing them. Augmented reality overlays virtual objects on the user’s real world, augmenting it. Although closely related to AR, mixed reality anchors apparently solid virtual objects in the user’s real world. So they appear to the user as real.
The first three platform waves came increasingly quickly, reached greater heights, and broke differently each time. The PC wave took almost 20 years from the launch of the Apple II before it accelerated in the ’90s. Fixed broadband internet took less than five years from launch before hitting its inflection point in the 2000s. Smartphones took only three years after the launch of the iPhone before they began to rocket, producing much of the tech innovation that is commercially successful today.
Today, AR/VR is still in the first of the four stages of tech market development (hype cycle, facing reality, liftoff, sustainable market). Its installed base, from low-end Cardboard through high-end HoloLens, is unlikely to top 100 million units until 2018 (note: that is units installed in total, not annual sales). There will be a few billion dollars revenue this year, a progressive ramp in 2017, and a hoped for inflection point in 2018. So what will cause the fourth wave to break?
The waves within the new reality have different but related dynamics driving their scale and timing. Virtual reality’s two forms (mobile and console/PC) have different drivers, despite being similar in many ways. Console/PC VR delivers the best user experience today, but is constrained by a potential host platform installed base of 40 million Sony PS4 consoles and less than 20 million VR capable PCs globally. Those numbers will grow in coming years as the cost of VR hardware and host platforms comes down, but some subset of a potential 60 million host platforms (and counting) indicates a deep rather than broad market in the long term.
Mobile VR will be the growth market in terms of VR’s installed base, with prices from $99 down to free, free is a pretty compelling price. The question for mobile VR today is that the experience does not match console/PC VR, but that will continue to change in coming years. As smartphone manufacturers face slow growth and squeezed margins, core roadmaps are now focused on beefing up mobile VR quality as a source of growth.
Augmented and mixed reality face different challenges to their virtual cousins, and they are 18 to 24 months behind VR in terms of consumer market readiness. So today AR/MR leaders are focused on the enterprise market to drive revenue as the technology matures.
For AR/MR to go truly consumer, there will need to be that magic combination of hero device, long battery life, cellular capability, strong app ecosystem and telco cross-subsidization to make AR/MR as useful and accessible to mass consumers as smartphones are today. Based on current roadmaps, that looks like it might be around 2018. While it could take longer, when that happens the fourth wave will truly start to break.