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How Danny Boyle’s Sunshine Shines a Light on the Differences Between VR and AR

Danny Boyle isn’t particularly known for his work in sci-fi. When people look back at the British director’s immense body of work, they highlight the likes of eye-opening drug drama Trainspotting and the eye-widening survival story of 127 Hours. But, back in 2007, Boyle defied expectations with Sunshine, an underrated sci-fi psychological thriller that tells the tale of a crew of astronauts, physicists and engineers on a mission to reignite our dying sun in 2057. The bleak adventure hopefully isn’t too accurate a vision of the future, but what the piece does seem to get right is the path that both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology are already starting down.

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VR and AR are both wildly exciting technologies, but they’re both coming to fruition at the same time. While Oculus VR, Valve and Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) push on with their respective VR head-mounted displays (HMDs), Microsoft is starting to stir the pot with its HoloLens mixed reality (MR) device. The latter kit leans heavily on AR, but also includes some elements of VR, much like the equally promising Magic Leap technology. AR is arguably a little further behind than VR, with no consumer launch for a major device on the horizon, but VR will be far from perfect when its various HMDs do launch in the coming weeks and months. How can the two possibly hope to co-exist when competing for consumer’s money in the years to come?

At the time, Sunshine took us 50 years into that future and, 8 years on, some of its ideas appear to be on track. Pretty much all of the film is set on board Icarus II, the vessel that the crew pilot on its multi-year mission to the sun. There are two rooms on-board, seen early on, that will catch the attention of any VR/AR fan. The first is the ‘Earth Room’, seen in the clip below. As you might guess, this room utilises VR, allowing a person, in this case Chris Evans’ engineer, Mace, to visit live recordings of scenes from our planet. He momentarily stands in a forest before choosing to observe a lively scene in which waves crash against a wall, much to the delight of 3 onlookers. Time in the room is prescribed as therapy following an outburst, and Mace notes that he finds this relaxing.

It’s also used in a far more tragic scenario that still manages to bring a form of tranquillity that some will have already experience in current VR software. It’s proof of how powerful a tool VR can become, especially when contrasted with the increasingly impossible odds that the crew of Icarus II soon find themselves up against.

A little later on in the film, Cillian Murphy’s physicist, Robert Capa has a tough choice to make that involves altering Icarus II’s trajectory. Capa must consider factors such as time, angle towards the sun and more. To process this information, he calls upon an AR hologram that projects the altered journey and the necessary information. It’s a fleeting moment but, stacked up next to the use of VR, makes a striking statement about the future of the two technologies.

VR is used here to entertain, relax and escape while AR has decidedly more work-focused applications. That rings true with what we’re already seeing in the here and now; the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Project Morpheus are being positioned as videogame platforms right now, with some cross over in other industries including film. It’s also being used within healthcare and education, but these cases still focus on that feeling of immersion and presence to allow users to practise skills and learn. AR also has crossover; Microsoft has spoken at length about using HoloLens within the home and impressed with its Minecraft demo last E3 but, with companies such as Object Theory taking a business-centric position, it’s hard to deny that this is a device that will be best served in the office.

Talk of cost also lines up with this theory. Microsoft has said that the price of HoloLens will be ‘significantly more’ than a games console such as the Xbox One, while VR companies are aiming to keep the cost down so that consumers can jump on straight away. True, the price of a console or capable PC on top of a VR HMD might bring it to around the same price as the self-reliant HoloLens, but the latter certainly seems to be thinking of businesses first and consumers later.

Whether this observation actually comes to fruition remains to be seen; it may be that AR captures the imagination of gamers around the world or some unforeseen VR software puts the tech in every office, but for now there seems to be a clear divide. Fans of one of the other need not fear competition or the idea of one killing off the other. VR and AR are set to peacefully co-exist in a world that will become all the better with them.