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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Virtual and augmented reality – development paths, application potentials, technology impacts

Thematic area: Information technologies
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: completed
Duration: 2017 till 2018

Subject and objective of the study

The term Virtual Reality (VR) refers to a software-generated simulation of real or fictitious environments the users can enter by means of appropriate human-machine interfaces (e. g. VR glasses) and in which they can interact with the simulated environment. Augmented Reality (AR) refers to a computer-assisted extension of the perceivable reality. Here, for example, additional information such as texts, images or virtual objects are superimposed into the users’ field of vision, e. g. working instructions displayed on the glasses of an assembly worker.

Due to continuous performance increases and the beginning degression of costs, VR and AR technologies are currently in a phase of development during which they are beginning to be used in various professional and private fields of application. Particularly the consumer-related multimedia aspect of VR seems to gain momentum due to the multitude of new devices that are put on the market by manufacturers like Samsung, Microsoft, Sony, Google or HTC. However, current developments of B2B solutions for industry, medicine, tourism, culture, construction and architecture can easily compare with the consumer sector. This underlines the economic and social relevance of VR and AR.

For this reason, the objective of the TA study was to investigate development paths, application potentials and technology impacts of VR and AR in an exploratory approach. In this context, the general challenges resulting from a merger of real and virtual environments were focused on just like application-specific technology potentials and impacts involved. In addition to literature evaluations, guideline-based interviews with experts from the different potential fields of application were conducted. Based on this, future scenarios were developed describing the influence of VR and AR on different living and working environments. Besides the emerging game changers of technological development, the focus was also on considering economic and social consequences. Further specification and an assessment of the technology impacts were carried out by means of trend radars that were discussed, validated and examined with regard to enabling technologies and cross references concerning several fields of application. The overall objective of such an intensive analysis process was to consider the increasingly complex subject of investigation in a differentiated way, to specify trend-setting challenges of future developments and to derive associated consequences for economy and society.

Key results

The commercialisation of VR/AR is increasing rapidly, both in terms of hardware and applications. In this context, the consumer sector is expected to account for approximately 60 % of global sales by 2025 and B2B sectors for 40 %. In the years to come, computer and video games as well as live events and video entertainment will be the key sectors for VR and AR. Further significant growth potential is seen in the production and retail market segments (including real estate) as well as in the education and military sectors. From the point of view of the innovation drivers, AR/VR applications will characterise the way in which sports events or news will be watched in the future, the means by which medical treatment is provided, how products are presented and purchased or how machines can be constructed and maintained. It can be assumed that AR and VR will further advance the digitisation of everyday life by promoting the integration of social interaction, media use, consumption and entertainment in the digital space and contributing to an entanglement of these fields.

Due to many research projects and leading roles in expert committees, German research is positioned very well in the international scientific discourse. Moreover, German applied research and development with the participation of companies is also in a very strong position. In the long term, this will offer opportunities for German research to gain or maintain knowledge leadership in areas such as e. g. medicine or industrial applications. In Germany, a comparatively interdisciplinary scientific community already deals with VR/AR. Research on social and ethical issues is also in an excellent position and plays an important role in the international context. Future research funding in Germany could focus particularly on interdisciplinary, application-oriented research in B2B areas. In this context, it could concentrate on areas such as medicine/medical engineering, machinery, construction as well as production, automation and Industry 4.0.

With regard to the economy, VR/AR offer great innovation and development potentials for many industries. In this process, the players of the German innovation landscape can position themselves very well with regard to international competition primarily due to the development and marketing of applications in the B2B sector, e. g. in industry contexts or in medicine. Since large technology groups have so far concentrated on the development of consumer-oriented end devices and content, young start-up companies can position themselves comparatively well in this field. New business models will be found in the areas of premium apps/content, e-commerce, streaming subscriptions, in-app purchases, social VR/communication, advertising and evaluation of user data.

Thanks to VR/AR, new interactive formats of knowledge transfer will emerge in school, vocational and academic education. In view of social risks, however, this reveals a certain ambivalence with regard to the effects that can arise for VR users due to their immersion in virtual worlds. While, on the one hand, this technology can help overcome social isolation by means of new forms of communication, virtual reality can also create a parallel world – which might result in isolation and alienation. Moreover, in the future, AR/VR content will also become the target of manipulating and manipulative intentions, which can be experienced by the user with the corresponding intensity. Furthermore, in addition to providing deliberately faked content, AR and VR also create new technological possibilities for manipulating the reactions and emotions of users via suggestive content and advertising.

By using AR/VR applications in professional environments (such as the use of smart glasses), trade secrets or highly confidential personal information of patients (when using VR for medical treatments) can be recorded. Like many other contexts for the everyday use of digital media, VR/AR applications underline the need for a reflective, critical and sovereign way of dealing with personal and work-related data in the digital sphere. There are still some open legal issues with regard to the virtual space, e. g. copyright and exploitation rights. For this reason, it is of major significance to which extent existing laws are actually sufficient or need to be adapted accordingly.

The physical and psychological consequences of long-term use of virtual reality are still largely unknown. Assumed consequences that might occur in case of (long-term) stays in virtual environments include personality change, alienation, social isolation and impacts on the human body. The psychological and neuronal implications, the influence on vision – especially in children and young people – as well as a possible influence on behaviour are also still unclear and require further research.

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