Will Mixed Reality Succeed Where Virtual Reality Couldn’t?

April 18, 2017

4:30 pm

As any virtual reality (VR) evangelist will tell you, 2016 was the year of VR. With the launch of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Google Cardboard, revenues for both VR and augmented reality (AR) platforms are set to top $120 billion by 2020.

Despite industry cheerleading, VR remains a niche market. The technology is ready, but the design of ‘realities’ has been immature, and most VR content released last year was game-based. Even though Greenlight found that gaming is only users’ sixth most desired function of the format, you’d be hard pressed to find any everyday people who regularly use it.

Mixed reality (MR) takes elements from both AR and VR, blending digital holographic experiences with users’ real-life surroundings. This innovative mix puts MR in the position to be the technological development that finally integrates VR innovations into our daily lives. But will it happen? Or will MR, like VR, be another innovation for diehard techies alone?

What Is Mixed Reality?

In its combination of VR and AR, MR users can interact with and manipulate virtual objects, which further interact with real objects around them. The resulting scenarios seamlessly blend the real and the virtual. This has a wealth of applications—picture medical students digitally exploring human anatomy, or an artist designing a virtual environment in a 3D space.

Now, the first hardware associated with mixed reality, Microsoft’s HoloLens—pitched as a “holographic computer”—is being celebrated as the pioneer in MR, with companies such as Rewind and Pop being among the first developers to work in the format.

HoloLens uses special mapping sensors, so the user maintains full perception of the world around them, while integrating Windows apps into the display. Over two years since its big reveal, HoloLens is finally available, but only to businesses and developers. However, applications have been promising.

Design

MR is fast becoming the next tool in computer-aided design. Trimble’s SketchUp viewer is the first commercial HoloLens solution for the architecture, engineering, construction and operations industries. So-called ‘experiential review’ allows people to inhabit their designs in the most natural way possible—either as a holographic scale model on a tabletop, or through an immersive experience from within a digital building model.

Viewing models this way enables designers to better understand the possibilities of their projects, shortening the cycle between design iterations. According to the program’s developers, SketchUp and Hololens will “bridge that gap between two-dimensional and three-dimensional and physical space.”

Communication

Mixed reality has been praised for its ability to remotely facilitate business meetings. While video conferencing has been integral in linking international professionals, MR and VR look set to transform that technology further with so-called ‘Holoportation’.

Device users in different cities can conduct virtual face-to-face conversations using systems like AltspaceVR. The company are pitching VR chat as an improved Skype session, but emphasising activity alongside pure conversation. Altspace claim that the benefit of MR communication is its versatility, praising it as “hyper-personal,” almost as organic as actually being present in a room.

Retail

The practical applications of MR are set to play a vital role in retail by allowing customers to digitally try before they buy. IKEA have already launched an AR app to help users see how new furniture might look in their homes.

As the technology evolves, Jon Wadelton, chief technology officer at The Foundry, believes that the fact mixed reality allows for a salesperson or brand representative to be present could be the deciding factor in its success. “VR content requires the creation of an entire environment and narrative structure,” he says. “Mixed reality developments mean that consumers can interact directly with a brand as they please, with much greater ease.”

Is 2017 the Year of Mixed Reality?

This technology looks set to find its way into common use pretty quickly, but is it premature to declare 2017 the year of mixed reality? Given the high costs and poor accessibility that blighted 2016’s ‘virtual reality revolution’, there might yet be some teething problems.

Despite this, DigiLens has still raised US$22 million to fund the development of augmented reality and virtual reality products in which digital information lies on top of transparent glass. Meanwhile, Apple’s foray into MR will likely be a game changer that could seed the market with significant new MR capabilities overnight: There are reports swirling that the September release of the iPhone 8 will be Apple’s first mixed reality device. And if there’s any company that can convince consumers to adopt a new technology en masse, it’s Apple.

We’ll just have to see what (mixed) realities the rest of 2017 will bring.

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Simon Davies is a London based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues and solutions.

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