JOHANNESBURG - In the 1812 tale of Snow White by the Brothers Grimm, a magical and powerful mirror with an autonomous reflection on the wall plays a central role. But it is a fairy tale. Or is it? There is strong proof to suggest that we are quickly moving into an era where devices that evaluate our appearance and change our behaviours are a reality. We are currently experiencing a wave of technically enhanced tools to help us optimise our daily lives and routines. 

One of these technologies is the “smart mirror” – a mirror with an integrated computer screen. Many of these mirrors have embedded cameras to examine your skin in microscopic and often unforgiving detail. Enabled to track the status of every line and blemish, people can accurately assess if the beauty products they are using are effective.
Also available are hairbrushes and styling tools with tiny built-in sensors that detect damage and dryness from the roots to the ends of the hair and then link to an app on a smart phone for restorative advice and personalised treatments.
Soon when we walk into a clothing shop "smart mirrors" will make our life so much easier. It will no longer be necessary to try on the same item of clothing in different colours. The mirror can simply switch the colour for you. And when you are visiting the hair or beauty salon the smart mirror will easily demonstrate the effect of different hair colours or make-up on you to avoid any nasty surprises.

Internationally and particularly in countries like Korea, this trend has taken the beauty world by storm, often to surreal effect. It seems that humans have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about themselves. People want to know as much detail about themselves as possible, from the number of steps they are taking in a day to what is happening while they are asleep. The new beauty technology fits perfectly into this paradigm. In fact, fashion and beauty brands are leading with displays that allow customers to interact with products in Augmented Reality (AR) and thus create more meaningful experiences for in-store shoppers.

Furthermore, consumer trust is at an unsurpassed low and people just do not tolerate what the famous brands are telling them to believe. Consumers therefore reach out to smart technology as the ultimate truth teller. Due to the precision of modern-day smart technology, there is little room for interpretation – it can easily show the progress over time as a result of a skin-care product or the lack thereof. Technology is thus perceived by consumers as an objective voice to indicate if a skin-care product is working or not.

Many of these new immersive technologies give us power over our own environment. Smart mirrors that use machine learning to fine-tune the lighting around your face work with Amazon Alexa so that when it is time for a skin check the smart mirror provides exactly the same lighting as in previous occasions.

Due to an improved understanding of the immersive technologies, as well as more skilled people, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, virtual and augmented reality began to come together to deliver exciting results towards the end of 2018. This trend will accelerate in 2019 onwards. Technologies such as augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and virtual reality (VR) will transform how users see and interact with the world and will lead to a new immersive type of experience.

Systems that bring together real-time three-dimensional (3D) vision, sound, haptic feedback (the sense of touch), olfactory and location data, enable people to immerse themselves in an entirely new reality where they can respond to what is around them and change their virtual environment in real time. Gartner is optimistic that immersive technologies are in a growth phase and forecasts that by 2022, 70% of enterprises will be testing immersive technologies for consumer and enterprise use, and 25% will have implemented immersive technologies in production.

Organisations are more and more using immersive technologies (AR, MR and VR) across a broad range of human activity from art and entertainment to commerce, education and the military. VR is proving especially useful in training where employees have to deal with physical danger. VR that mimic real-life situations is used to train doctors, nurses, teachers, and police officers. Petroleum companies, for instance, use VR to provide staff with immersive experiences by using heated jackets mimicking the effects of fire. Where the hands of manufacturing and field workers are tied up, AR glasses provide real-time data to lessen errors and improve accuracy, safety and quality.

VR and AR technology is dramatically changing the way professionals work. Engineers currently use Internet of things (IoT) sensors to create a “digital twin” of complex objects such as wind turbines to allow them to inspect the object in VR without any physical danger or the need to travel huge distances. Through digital twins, engineers based thousands of kilometers away from a wind turbine that is posing a problem, could identify and resolve the issue in real time, as if they were on location.

Travel agents will in 2019 increasingly use VR to allow prospective travellers to experience the inside of a hotel room or the nearest beach before they book a particular holiday. 

Unfortunately some people will become addicted to VR as a way to escape the unpleasantness of their real life. Dating simulators and VR travelogues will certainly contribute to this form of escapism.

But in 2019 AR will overtake VR. VR made its mark in gaming, journalism, filmmaking, education, sports and music, but since AR is more tightly integrated into smartphones, it will expand to more real-world uses beyond just games. The advantage of AR is that it can run on existing smartphones, via their cameras.

AR augments or adds to what a person is already seeing. A nurse, for example, could look at a human body and see not only the organs inside, but also detailed information about them.

Google Chrome for mobile will release in 2019 the first official browser supporting WebAR. Browser-based AR entails that users no longer need to download an app or special software. Web-based AR will work with existing websites and will alter the way AR content is delivered to users.

There is no doubt that AR, MR and VR show potential for improved productivity, with the next generation of VR able to sense shapes and track a user’s position and MR enabling people to view and interact with their world. It will also certainly bring new innovative ways of marketing and staying in contact with a customer base.

VR - and its sister technology AR - are continuously improving and diversifying. But the real success of these immersive technologies in 2019 will be determined by applications. Applications are what truly create a VR or AR experience and it is these experiences that will make this technology ubiquitous. 

2019 will see many new apps for smartphones, which will seems as if they are from the future. A good example is the impending Google Maps app. Consumers will be able to view the streets through the camera on their smartphone and see the directions appear on their screen.

Professor Louis Fourie is deputy vice-chancellor: knowledge & information technology - Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

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