When you push the boundaries of Virtual and Augmented Reality and merge them to create a new abstraction level, you get Mixed Reality (MR). Mixed Reality and its applications are both incredibly ingenious and awe-inspiring. The creative leaps you used to witness in space-age movies are now a reality. MR is the new kid on the block. Let’s “immerse” ourselves into MR to understand more about this new technology.
What is Reality? It is not just an existential question. Over the years, human ingenuity has been continuously pushing the edges of Reality, reinventing what we perceive through our senses. Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) has been around for some time, and most of us have some experience with them. VR of today is not the same you might have experienced a few years ago. It doesn’t mean that you have to strap a bulky computer on to your forehead and have a painful experience (those were the old days), today’s devices are smarter lighter and allow more engagement.
Regarding Augmented Reality, many of us noticed how Pokémon Go exploded on to the scene; the app was downloaded over a billion times and was extremely popular. The game used the GPS on the user’s phone, and virtual Pokémon were imposed on the user’s surrounding environment as viewed through the phone’s camera. This virtual interface layered with real physical objects and virtual characters is how the player felt connected as the imaginary Pokémon real overlaid the environment.
Virtual Reality (VR) focuses on replacing your immediate surroundings with something different; for example, you can feel transported to the beach while still sitting in your living room. To accomplish this effect, VR uses devices that engage your two senses of vision and hearing. These devices, typically headsets, engulf your vision to cover your peripheral vision as much as it can so you get the feeling of being “in” the new environment. Using headphones, you also get detached from the surrounding sounds and only hear what is meant to be in the Virtual Reality you are experiencing. There have been quite some advancements in the development of these headsets. Oculus Rift S and HTC Vive are some of the highly-rated VR headsets. VR is an entirely virtual space that people can enter and have popular games, virtual tours, and travel applications.
Augmented Reality(AR), on the other hand, is about overlaying images and virtual objects over real-world surroundings. So the Pikachu sitting on your sofa in the Pokémon go game is an example of AR. With AR, you are not having an immersive experience as you can still manipulate the real surroundings while interacting with the virtual characters on your device. The use cases are in games and often used in manufacturing and supply chain in warehouses. Think about walking down the aisle in a warehouse with your device pointing at the long array of boxes. The app analyzes the right pick location and highlights it in real-time on your device, suggesting the correct place for your pick.
Mixed Reality (MR) lies somewhere between these two extreme ends. MR overlays virtual objects on real-life surroundings and gives a unique perspective. It provides a semi-immersive experience as you still view your real surrounding with additional overlays, and you don’t get locked away in a virtual experience of a VR. The applications for Mixed Reality are creating a significant buzz. Market research on Augmented and Mixed Reality, performed by Juniper Research, considered that VR/AR applications would reach over 10 billion installations by 2024. The market will be over $43 billion in the same year.
Components of Mixed Reality
MR experience lies somewhere between VR and AR. It seamlessly mixes the virtual world of VR and brings in the real world of AR. MR allows the user to interact with both worlds. While AR improves the user’s perception of its surroundings, MR can make potentially make virtual aspects indistinguishable from Reality.
There are primarily two types of devices that are used to create MR.
Holographic Devices – These devices create holograms and images that are virtual and project them on to the real world of objects; for example, you can see the body and outline of a person juxtaposed on a chair next to you with such a holographic device. Example Microsoft HoloLens 2
Immersive Devices – Immersive devices help conceal the real elements in the surroundings and replace them with digital creations. Example Samsung HMD Odyssey.
Such immersive devices allow users to achieve maximum isolation into the virtual world from a real-world dimension. Developers focus on building headsets that enhance the experience by using techniques such as eyeball tracking and increasing the field of view.
Applications of MR
Developers are only beginning to explore the possible scenarios where MR can be effectively used. As of now, fields such as education, training, sports healthcare, engineering, and construction are finding the best use of mixed reality technology.
Education – Medical students, for instance, can now use MR to visualize human anatomy; the entire education sector stands to gain by having courses redesigned to incorporate MR and help in better assimilation. Case Western Reserve University in Ohio took advantage of the Microsoft HoloLens 2 to learn anatomy.
Sales – Imagine a medical sales representative explaining how the medicine interacts with the human body. Both the doctor and the representative can engage in MR and visually see the effect and engage in manipulating parameters.
Engineering – Applications can use MR to project 3D or 4D design models over the actual structures which are being constructed. It can help them understand the progress and focus on improving quality.
Training – Manufacturing companies are using applications built on HoloLens to remote train engineers and help fix problems. A major automaker in Japan is training its counterparts in Mexico in this pandemic and saving time and money on the movement of resources across countries for training and support needs.
Remote Meeting – Now, you can attend remote meetings and interact with others using their avatars in a real room setting. Spatial, a startup focused on augmented and virtual reality solutions, has developed an application that allows you to attend meetings. It’s now claiming that you can do that without a headset!
Healthcare – “Using HoloLens is like having an x-ray vision”, claims Karl West at the Cleveland Clinic. The HoloLens can fit over a surgeon’s head and displays images that hover in the surgeon’s field of vision. The apps align images of the patient’s anatomy with the real-life view. The images come from previously taken CT scans or MRI, but are projected holographically via the head-mounted device.
Mixed Reality brings the immense potential to change how people interact, work, and collaborate with real objects worldwide. As other technologies such as faster chipsets and 5G continue to evolve, it’s expected that MR, too, will mature, and there will be more readily available applications of MR in more industries and sectors.
Other factors, such as acceptable social etiquette while using MR, will also need to be considered. When we see an image on a screen, we know it’s virtual, and it’s limited within the screen. However, we may not anticipate people’s emotional reactions to real-life virtual images and objects in real-world settings. As MR technology develops, it will be crucial for the developers to focus on this aspect. Aspects of intended use and privacy need to be studied and taken into account.