Reality Check: Virtual, Augmented And Mixed

D/SRUPTION explores the technologies and the markets around these realities

Virtual, augmented and mixed reality? That’s a lot of different realities to deal with, especially for those of us struggling to keep up with the progress of these disruptive technologies. So let’s clarify the difference between these three terms and take a look at the current state of play in the VR, AR and MR sector. Hold on to your hats – we’re about to enter reality, but not as you know it…

Virtual reality

Virtual reality is as simple to explain as it is to achieve with today’s technology: it is complete immersion into a virtual world. Generally this is achieved with a headset – the user looks at a virtual screen, their eyes adjust to view the images on this screen in 3D, and the headset tracks where they look and translates this into their field of vision within the virtual world.

The first VR headsets as we know them today arrived in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the early 2010s that models arrived with a level of sophistication that we have come to expect from this technology. 2016 was a big year in VR, with the commercial release of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR models. Still mostly confined to the gaming industry – although with emerging applications in professional training and other business activities – VR devices have been limited in their uptake through their hefty price tags. Costing only a few pounds, Google Cardboard, released in 2014, significantly brings down this average, but its VR experience is decidedly more budget than those of other models.

In general, the VR sector is well developed, with major milestones already reached. Current focus on virtual reality lies around widening its appeal beyond gaming, and finely tuning the user experience by improving software and the physical design of the headsets themselves.

Augmented reality

Augmented and mixed reality are a little more difficult to define than their VR counterpart. Whilst some companies equate the two terms, others – such as Magic Leap and Microsoft – consider there to be an important distinction between them. With so many words in use around computer altered realities it is helpful to differentiate between AR and MR.

In essence, augmented reality overlays computer data such as text, 3D objects and video onto a user’s normal view of the world. This enables them to see real life as well as computer generated items. AR has had varied success in the commercial sphere. The much touted Google Glass headset, for example, which placed computer data in front of the eyes of its wearers, was an unmitigated flop. With an extortionate $1,500 price point, security fears and clunky design, the device was eventually discontinued as a consumer product three years after its release.

In contrast, other AR based devices have seen better fortune. The smartphone game Pokémon GO, which enables its users to catch virtual creatures in the real world, has been hugely popular since its release in 2016. Whilst the computer generated Pokémon in the app clearly don’t look like real world objects, this does not affect their eligibility for inclusion under the AR umbrella. They exist as an overlay on top of their real world surroundings, augmenting but not interfering with the reality of the user.

As for Google Glass? Surprisingly, it is still possible to buy them. However, the headsets never managed to live up to their aspiration of being a life changing piece of consumer technology – something that we would all begin to wear and consider the norm. They are now owned by X and marketed at workers in manufacturing, healthcare and logistics, supplementing their user’s field of vision with information relevant to their tasks.

Mixed reality

Mixed reality can be defined as existing somewhere between the realms of VR and AR. Mixed reality computer programmes add virtual objects to the real world, with the intention of making it look like they are really there. This is the seamless blending of augmented reality with a user’s perception of the real world. In theory, with MR it is impossible to know what has been added by a computer and what is real.

There are several different companies currently working on the development of mixed reality devices. Perhaps the most renowned of these is Magic Leap, which has been teasing consumers with impressive concept footage of its Magic Leap One device for several years. Whilst no MR technology has yet emerged to match this concept level, in a demo video released in July (see 33:00), the company previewed user interacting with a small rock throwing character in a living room and kitchen. As well as displaying the progress that has been made in the Magic Leap device, this also demonstrates an important aspect of MR, that computer generated objects can be placed on – and operate around – real items in the physical world.

Whilst mixed reality devices might now be able to make virtual objects photorealistic, there is still some way to go before they live up to the hype. This is because mixed reality is extremely difficult to achieve. It must be capable of tricking the brain into believing that virtual objects are really there, taking into account the way our eyes focus on objects at different depths and how we intuitively map our physical environment. With devices such as Magic Leap One and Microsoft’s Hololens still failing to provide full immersion in a combined real and virtual world, there’s a long development path ahead before MR can consider itself established.

Back to normality…

To sum up, whilst VR, AR and MR all have their own uses and applications, it seems that mixed reality offers the most potential for the moment. If successful, fully immersive MR devices can be developed – which is sure to happen at some point over the next few years – we are all likely to become accustomed to having our world enhanced by computer graphics and sounds.

Mixed reality promises to project our computer screens before our eyes, enable us to talk to virtual representations of people across the world as if they were sitting right next to us, and interact with rare objects in museums from the comfort of our own homes. By changing the very way we look at and interact with the world, it is the key to a whole host of new business and consumer applications. Although it’s difficult to predict when, the mixed reality revolution will arrive. Watch this (virtual) space.

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