Metafocus: How to Use Math to See the Future of VR and AR

Three laws and one market trend cycle are about to rock your world. These three laws and the cycle describe how virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR, such as Magic Leap or the Microsoft Hololens glasses) are experiencing rapid exponential growth and will very soon dramatically change the way we all interact, work, learn, and live.

Moore’s Law

The first law that’s influencing the rapid progress of VR and AR technology, Moore’s Law, states that our experience suggests that the number of computer transistors that can be packed into a square inch of integrated circuit doubles every 1.5 years. This means that (so far) we continually get smaller, faster, and cheaper processing power for computers, including VR and AR devices. The Moore’s Law S-curve represents a long period of imperceptible change, followed by exponential growth for a period, and finally a leveling off period when some physical limit is reached (Figure 1).

The growth of processor size over time, rising in an S-curve.

Figure 1: Moore’s Law, Single Technology, Linear Scale 

Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns

The second law impacting the rise of VR and AR is Kurzweil’s Law (also known as The Law of Accelerating Returns), which demonstrates that the rate of technological acceleration is itself accelerating. In other words, computers are speeding up, shrinking in size, and increasing in power more rapidly every year. If it now takes one to two years to double a computer’s power, size, and speed, it’ll only take six months in the future. In addition to microchip size and cost, processors, bandwidth, screens, software, hardware, batteries, and dozens of other relevant factors all improve by doubling or halving every one to two years.

All of these individual technology S-curves can be stacked on top of one another, effectively adding their individual impacts and accelerating the evolution of computers such as VR and AR. Further, when the growth of any given factor reaches a physical limit (i.e., the flattened top of the S-curve), a new, more advanced technology tends to replace it right away, starting a whole new period of exponential growth. Finally, these new compounding advances tend to arrive more quickly over time, accelerating the whole process even more.

Thus, technology actually progresses not as a single S-curve on a linear graph, but rather as a rising parabolic curve on a logarithmic graph (Figure 2).

Computer power and speed over time in a rising parabolic curve.

Figure 2: Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns

Put another way, the total of all technological change we’ll experience throughout the twenty-first century does not equate to 100 years of change at our current rate of progress, but rather 20,000 years. Think of all the new technologies we experience in an entire decade right now. That much progress will occur every few days, or even every few hours by the end of this century. While it’s almost impossible to fathom what 20,000 years’ worth of rapid technological progress even means, we can safely assume that the near future will look nothing like the present, and the far future will be even wilder still.

Using the two previous laws, we can expect VR headsets and AR glasses to get twice as powerful, fast, small, and cheap every couple of years, or perhaps even every six to twelve months, from now until forever. VR screen resolution, field of view (FOV), and sensor quality will also double every year or two. Haptic devices and 360 audio will rapidly improve. Hyper-advanced software capabilities will naturally follow shortly behind all this progress in hardware (likely with the help of programming created by artificial intelligence, which is on a similarly rapid evolution).

Metcalfe’s Law

The third law affecting VR’s and AR’s utility, Metcalfe’s Law, states that the number of unique connections in a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users on the network. If “n” represents the number of nodes (i.e., users) in a network, and “c” represents the number of unique connections within that network, then:

Metcalfe’s Law represented as a math equation.

For example, two people with telephones can only call each other, which is just one connection. Five people with phones can make ten unique connections, that is, ten different calls between unique pairs of callers. Twelve can make 66 connections. And so on.

In other words, more users means exponentially more connections and an exponentially more useful network (Figure 3).

Metcalfe’s Law as a series of increasingly complex telephone connections.

Figure 3: Metcalfe’s Law

VR headsets and AR glasses are, in fact, powerful telecommunication devices, connecting users to other users. Upwards of 10 million VR headsets have already been sold worldwide. VR graphics card manufacturer Nvidia predicts that more than 50 million headsets will be sold by 2021, less than three years from today. The number of connections that can be made between 50 million users is astronomically large, roughly 1.25 X 1015, or more than a quadrillion unique connections. These numbers equate to a very powerful network, one that will eventually rival, replace, or simply merge with cell phones, TVs, game consoles, and laptop computers.

All this means that VR headsets and AR glasses are close to reaching a tipping point where everyone has to have one in order to communicate with friends, go online, do work, go to school, buy something, or do just about anything at all. We’ve experienced this kind of shift before with the advent of personal computers in the 1980s, internet connections in the 1990s, cell phones in the 2000s, and smart phones in the 2010s. In each case, almost no one had one until seemingly one day just about everyone did, and the world was dramatically and indelibly changed for the better. The day we hit the gotta-have-it-and-use-it-all-day tipping point will likely happen for VR headsets and AR glasses in the 2020s.

The Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies

This brings us back to the cycle I mentioned at the beginning of the article. The Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies describes the stages a new technology goes through from conception to maturity to widespread adoption (Figure 4).

Expectations throughout the Gartner Hype Cycle, at their high point near the beginning with the peak of inflated expectations, and their low point immediately thereafter in the trough of disillusionment.

Figure 4: The Gartner Hype Cycle

Virtual reality is just leaving the Trough of Disillusionment, and augmented reality is not far behind. We’re seeing early indications of this for both technologies. Investment capital is starting to come back to the space. The popularity of books and movies like Ready Player One and TV shows like Black Mirror demonstrate that regular people are getting excited for VR and AR. One guy even recently spent a month straight existing almost entirely in VR. He may be an early adopter, but he’s shown that it’s already possible to live and work in VR.

So what does it all mean? What do we do with these conclusions? I have two answers to that.

The scary answer is that the train is leaving, and we can’t afford to get left behind. We have to jump on and start creating for and with VR and AR now ... today. I mean literally today. Our schools and companies must stay on this year’s bleeding edge of VR and AR in order to stay relevant next year. We must learn to be VR/AR experts or we’ll quickly become relics.

The inspiring answer is that it all means whatever we make it mean. It’s still very early for VR and AR, for a few more years anyway. We get to make up the rules as we go. We get to choose what we do with all this potent technology. We get to be a part of the movement, bringing diverse viewpoints and creating inclusive experiences. We get to build powerful tools for learning, working, and living, far beyond the wildest imaginings of today’s sci-fi.

The VR and AR development communities have realized this, and they’re collaborating in surprisingly supportive and friendly ways to create amazing games and experiences. It’s easy to get in the game. Find a meetup, attend a conference, complete a tutorial, and start creating your own amazing experiences today.

Moore’s Law, Kurzweil’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law, and the Gartner Hype Cycle tell us we can do anything at all with the future of VR and AR in the coming years. The possibilities are infinite. I’m excited to see where these technologies take us and where we take these technologies. I hope you are too!

Additional resources

These five books provide deeper explanations of the above concepts and glimpses of how various emerging technologies will shape the future of VR and AR. I recommend adding them to your reading list!

Kelly, Kevin. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. Viking Press, 2016.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. Viking Press, 2010.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. Penguin Books, 2000.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Viking Press, 2005.

Tegmark, Max. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Knopf, 2017.

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