Introduction to: Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality and Virtual Reality
The terms Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality and Virtual Reality have become buzz words in the technology sector over the past few years, and over the last 12 months or so, these technologies have started to make an impact at home and in the work place. But what are these three new “realities”? And what future applications could these technologies have?
Virtual Reality (VR) is the creation of a computer-generated virtual world that the user “steps into” by using a headset. As Polygon explain, VR “seeks to replace reality with something else, rather than enhance it. This is usually accomplished by some combination of optics, headphones and head tracking, so you can look around the virtual environment and, in some cases, move within it in some way.” A good example of Virtual Reality is a VR video game, such as those available on the Oculus Rift. With VR, players can move beyond flat computer screens and experience a more immersive environment.
Augmented Reality (AR) takes the opposite approach, and is about overlaying virtual objects on top of the real world. This means that instead of wearing a full headset to take you into a new world, the user instead wears a special pair of glasses, or uses their smartphone, to view the virtual objects that have been added to the real world. A good example of this is the Pokémon Go craze that we wrote about last summer. Pokémon Go uses the phone’s camera to show the world in front of you, and then adds in virtually created Pokémon on top of this view, allowing you to “interact” with the Pokémon in an attempt to “catch” them. Augmented Reality is about adding to the real world, not creating a new one.
Mixed Reality (MR) is perhaps the hardest of these three technologies to define, but it relates to the experience in-between the real environment used in Augmented Reality, and the virtual environment used in Virtual Reality. The Next Web describes Mixed Reality as the following: “Mixed Reality works by scanning your physical environment and creating a 3D map of your surroundings so the device will know exactly where and how to place digital content into that space – realistically – while allowing you to interact with it using gestures. Much different than Virtual Reality where the user is immersed in a totally different world, Mixed Reality experiences invite digital content into your real-time surroundings, allowing you to interact with them.”
The leader in Mixed Reality right now is Microsoft, with their HoloLens, which allows virtual objects, sounds and environments to be added to the world around you. Mixed Reality is about combining the augmented nature of AR with the virtual objects and environments of VR.
What the Future Holds
All three of these technologies have distinctive uses and applications, each playing to the core strengths of their design. But these technologies will also overlap with each other, with all three having possible uses in education and medicine, for example.
Virtual Reality, with its immersive nature and ability to create completely new environments, will continue to make ground into the video game market. As for film and television, it’s 360 video and not true Virtual Reality, at least in the short-term, that could make more of an impact. 360 video doesn’t feature the fully interactive, computer generated environments of VR, and instead features fully panoramic video footage that puts the viewer where the camera goes, rather than letting the viewer control where they go and what they do, as happens in computer-generated Virtual Reality. 360 video is about an immersive experience, not an interactive one.
As mentioned above, Virtual Reality could have a role to play in education in the near future. VR would provide new learning environments and scenarios that are safe and easily repeatable, and could become an established part of learning in the 21st century. And on the commercial side of things, VR could be used by any area of business where a virtual world would be beneficial, such as real estate companies taking customers on virtual tours of buildings that are not yet built.
VR may also become a big player in the world of advertising, with Google Experimenting with Virtual Reality Advertising.
While VR might corner certain markets and have specific uses, Augmented Reality could have a bigger impact in the consumer market. Apple have indicated that AR could become huge, and just last month they showed off their first step into AR with ARKit which will improve AR on the iOS platform. This is just a hint at what is to follow, with AR likely to become a key part of smartphones over the next few years, and a likely release of AR glasses into the marketplace in the same time frame. Beyond games like Pokémon Go, AR could be used for providing real time information to the world around you for things such as weather, traffic or locations.
AR could also be used in marketing to create a more interactive marketing experience. It could also be used in retail too, for example letting you add a digital version of a chair or sofa to your house before buying it. Augmented Reality could also have a variety of medical applications.
As with VR, Mixed Reality could have an important role to play in the future of education. Schools could teach students how to do scientific experiments through the use of MR and computer-generated objects, rather than physical ones. Mixed Reality may also become a key tool in areas of work where collaboration is important, such as design. MR allows for two or more people to work together on an interactive, computer-generated object and would be perfect for projects requiring collaboration from people in different physical locations.
Another exiting field that MR could be poised to move into is holograms. Microsoft has started work on a project called Holoportation that “allows high-quality 3D models of people to be reconstructed, compressed and transmitted anywhere in the world in real time”. In other words, MR could allow you to send a hologram of yourself into someone’s living room via the internet. Regardless of whether this particular idea comes to fruition, communication could be disruptively altered by Mixed Reality.
With companies as big as Apple, Google and Microsoft pushing these technologies forward, it’s a near certainty that AR, MR and VR will all have a role to play in our future. Just how much impact each one immediately makes, and which one, if any, becomes a defining technology of the early 21st century, are questions that can’t be answered yet. What we know for sure is we’re going to hear a lot more about these technologies in the months and years ahead.