With the launch of Oculus Rift and the release of gadgets like Hololens there are a whole bunch of virtual worlds coming our way. Very soon we will actually be able to kill zombies with more than our thumbs and never have to buy a tv again as an entire wall becomes a screen. But with all of this coming to the consumer market how will it affect consumer robotics? Depends on where you are in the space.
As a whole, VR and AR are going to be a technological boon for robotics. In order for these VR systems to work they have to map the world and make their characters interact with it and with you. This is exactly what robots need. Robots have to learn about their environment and interact with it and you. The trouble is that robots have always been a very expensive medium to practice 3D mapping. VR is eliminating that obstacle. The relative affordability, and widespread adoption of VR, will allow hundreds of people to develop algorithms for computer creatures to see and interact with the world. Those algorithms and apps will then be able to port directly over into a home robot that has to do the dishes. VR is going to he a huge stimulus to robotics sensing technology.
VR is also going to lend itself to human machine interaction. The ability to create a virtual version of your robot and then interact with it and have it react as it would in the real world will allow for more tweaks to be made. Roboticists and interaction designs will be able to prototype a head nod or an eye blink that would normally have required a physical prototype. In this sense VR is going to speed up the development of personal robots that interact with us. Soon the interactions and the hardware will be able to be developed simultaneously, when it used to be sequentially.
But there is one robot killer in VR that will be significant. Today, if you look at many of the robots coming to market, they are often what are called "social robots." These personal assistants are basically a motorized interface that can interact with you at a deep level through great expression. These robots, like Jibo and Pepper, are characters that you use to interact with the Web or your house. But since they are not a device that interacts physically with the world, like picking up a shirt, they are easily replaced by AR. Microsoft has already demoed a partial version of this with their Hololens, when it projected an interactive robot onto a simple mobile robot. Social robots that serve no purpose beyond an interface are going to be in great danger of being replaced entirely by the software in a headset that can be built by a kid in a garage for free. Robots that may be replaced include tour guides, entertainment robots, some educational robots, purely social robots, robot pets.
The only way that robots can remain relevant within the VR world that is coming will be to perform physical tasks that software never can. They must vacuum floors, do laundry, watch the kids, secure the house, cook a meal, or prepare pills. Basically they must be a laborer, not a friend.
Though there is no reason to go to one extreme or another. Again Microsoft's demo of an AR robot showed how the social components of the robot could be combined with the physical. Such a hybrid system might be ideal. For games and interaction a home robot might be virtually masked with a cape or a face. But the rest of the time it will simply be the little box roaming around sweeping the floor.