Software-enabled services for customizing physical reality are beginning to move into new market spaces, including the automotive-interiors market space. Advances in neural interfaces could one day empower people to customize every aspect of the physical reality they experience. In the present, extended-reality (XR) technologies are beginning to offer people the ability to customize their audiovisual realities by blending digital objects and experiences with objects and experiences in their physical environments.
At the 2023 New York International Auto Show, Hyundai Motor Company executives discussed company plans to earn revenue from offering novel software-based features that help end users customize their in‑vehicle experiences. Some examples of the types of features that Hyundai is considering include advanced infotainment and in‑car gaming, special operating modes for pet owners, engine sounds for electric vehicles, and digital themes for infotainment displays. Special hardware-software integration could eventually extend vehicles' ability to deliver a wide range of customized interior experiences that users could download and install in the same way that they might download and install digital clothing, furniture, and other objects within a virtual world. For example, a fan of a particular sports team could pay for a downloadable digital theme that would transform a vehicle's displays and interior lighting to reflect the team's colors and logos.
Other automakers have already pioneered some of the features that Hyundai is developing, but they have not yet created a robust business model around them. For example, Tesla has offered in‑vehicle gaming, downloadable horn sounds, and similar features that have been uncommon in automotive markets, but these features appear to have had only modest popularity. Although many automakers offer features such as customizable interior accent lighting that has a sufficiently wide range of color options to enable vehicle users to create digital themes for their vehicle interiors, such features have been fairly rudimentary. Numerous examples of solutions that help people customize their physical reality through software exist outside the automotive sphere, but such solutions have also found only niche popularity. For example, smart-lighting systems that integrate with video content have found modest success among home-theater enthusiasts and gamers. Similarly, services such as Artcast and Samsung Art Store help people transform their flat-panel televisions into paintings but have so far failed to become widely popular.
Meanwhile, services that enable people to customize purely virtual characters and spaces have been hugely popular—particularly with young people. For example, a 2022 survey of users of the Roblox virtual-world platform revealed that nearly 75% of Generation Z users had spent real-world money on virtual fashion items and that 12% of users who spend money on virtual fashion spend more than $20 per month. According to data from Demand Sage, Roblox had more than 214 million monthly active users (80% of whom are younger than age 16) as of May 2023; accordingly, the number of young people who spend money on virtual fashion every month in Roblox alone could be in the tens of millions.
In June 2023, Apple began demonstrating its Vision Pro XR headset publicly. Like many other XR devices before it, the Vision Pro captures three-dimensional images of a user's real-world surroundings and can reproduce those surroundings on near-eye displays, mixing in images of virtual objects and interface elements that appear to exist within the physical space surrounding the user. Users thus gain the ability to customize their physical realities—albeit to a limited extent. Indeed, Apple's initial Vision Pro demonstrations mainly included the insertion of virtual display screens and application windows into a user's environment (users can view purely virtual environments through the device as well). Although the Vision Pro's capabilities are not particularly groundbreaking, a combination of hardware, software, sensing, and display improvements makes the Vision Pro's fusion of virtual and physical realities appear substantially more fluid and realistic than are such fusions of previous state-of-the‑art devices.
The merger of physical and virtual is still not fully convincing, and the Vision Pro's high cost, physically cumbersome nature, and short battery life make the device unsuitable for mainstream markets; however, XR technology may now be on the cusp of being able to merge the virtual and physical worlds seamlessly. Within the next ten years, further technology improvements may yield XR devices that are much more affordable and comfortable than are current devices and have performance on par with the Vision Pro's, making sophisticated XR experiences available to the mainstream. Such devices will find a market that is likely to be highly receptive to the concept of paying real-world money for virtual clothing, furniture, decorations, and experiences that are available through XR devices, making reality customization a mass-market phenomenon. For example, XR users could use a device and special software to transform the appearance of their physical home's interior to match that of a palace, spaceship, or virtually whatever else they can imagine. Huge markets could emerge for software-enabled services that scan users' surroundings and transform them into new digital realities.
The types of reality-customization features that XR could one day enable promise a major advantage over the types of similar features that exist today. Today's options require complex arrays of lighting and displays to create software-defined experiences. Because creating a software-defined experience that is truly immersive requires a level of hardware and space investment that is beyond what any ordinary user can reasonably support, such immersive experiences generally exist only in art installations, museums, and similar locations. In contrast, XR can create a totally immersive environment using a single personal device. Although a person cannot share that experience with other people who lack compatible XR devices, an explosion in XR's popularity could enable a similar explosion in the popularity of services that create shared immersive spaces by mixing software-generated features with real-world environments.