Now, a new form of computing stands on the horizon, creating a plane of reality that intersects the physical and virtual world that’s doth exceptional and familiar where digital information seamlessly blends into our physical reality as active parts of our environment – a world where computers can understand our surroundings and where technology feels unbound from the human experience. This is Mixed Reality – it’s real, it’s here, and it’s one of the biggest technological races since the rise of personal computing.
Beginner’s guide: the Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality distinction
While Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality technologies are all similar in many aspects, they have some fundamental differences. Virtual Reality headsets like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive completely replace your current reality with a new one, putting you in a 3D generated world with little concern for your immediate surroundings. It invites you into its world, and it’s isolationist by design, which is one of its main strengths (fully immersive) as well as weaknesses (disconnect from your context).
Augmented reality, however, overlays digital information on top of your real world, the most notable example being the popular game Pokemon Go. And while it can make for some interesting applications, it is nothing but a rough digital overlay — it doesn’t truly understand your space, which stops you from making applications that truly use your world as a canvas.
Mixed Reality, however, is a completely different beast that combine several types of technology into one device — differently from AR and VR, MR devices are constantly scanning your room and gathering a 3D understanding of your surroundings, using that information to seamlessly place digital information within your space and interact with it, all of which can be viewed through transparent displays as you naturally interact with the result using your hands. Unlike Virtual Reality, MR doesn’t invite you to a completely different world — rather; it invites the digital world into yours.
The Race to Build a New Reality
The race for Mixed Reality is already happening. All major tech companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Intel and others have been advocating resources to Mixed Reality ventures, with new players like the Meta and Magic Leap also entering the game, each with their own distinct vision of the future. Microsoft’s HoloLens as well as Meta’s Headset have development kits of their own in the market today.
The HoloLens by Microsoft has a sleek design. In fact, it’s a completely functional untethered holographic computer, requiring no wires or any external power to run whatsoever. It possesses 3 distinct types of sensors and 5 environment understanding cameras working together to allow the device to understand 3D space and place holograms, and the resulting mixed reality is finally brought to life by the two high-pixel-density lenses that sit in front of the user’s eyes. Through a simple “gaze and click” interface the user can do familiar tasks like browse the web as well as perform Skype calls in virtual screens you can scatter around your environment with no restraints of location and size— you can also play around with a range of novel Mixed Reality apps ranging from creative tools to Games that showcase some of the unique powers of the medium. The HoloLens adds a sense of permanence to digital objects that’s uncommon with technology — since it creates and stores a 3D mesh of all the physical environments you use it in, it remembers where you set up your holograms — so if you drop a couple of 3D models in the living room of work space, and then leave your home for 3 days, they will all be exactly where you left them when you return. The amazing part is that all of its parts come together.
From Personal Devices to Personal Universes
If Mixed Reality becomes popularized, everything we know is bound to change — the eventual replacement of today’s computers and smartphones devices with technology of this type means that all digital interfaces that we know today will have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Overall, MR is expected to cause disruption on a vast scale, completely revolutionizing enterprise applications, education, social media and the $2 trillion dollar entertainment market — all while opening a door to a new way of being alive.
And this is important: Mixed Reality isn’t just a new type of technology — it’s an entirely new plane of existence. It’ll spur new ways of creating and consuming content, sure, but when you begin to speculate how MR will converge with other emerging technologies such as 5G and the Internet of Things, the possibilities become even more expansive. Users will be able to access all the information they need only when and where they’re needed, always presented perfectly on top of their real world instead of diverting you away from it. I tend to think that technology is only truly mature when it’s invisible to the user — in this case, MR is what technologically-mature computers look like, blending seamlessly into the human experience instead of detracting you from it.
Imagine educating yourself not in classrooms, but simply by exploring the world, learning about surrounding plants and animals by simply looking at them. Perhaps you would like to travel into the 1920’s for a day, replacing all of the surrounding cars, people and buildings with virtual retro counterparts. Or maybe you would like to be able to see through the walls of your office, just so you always know exactly where your co-workers are. What if you want to replace all advertisements that surround you with pieces of modern art? Or make that one bar always resemble the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars, filled with digital alien creatures amidst the humans in the space. In a world of MR, there are no creative constraints, and this allows us users to have agency over their own realities in a way that we’ve never encountered before.
Ultimately, these devices will eventually give you the power to choose to live anywhere within a ‘vanilla’ and ‘fully virtual’ reality spectrum, representing a technological shift from a world of Personal Devices to a world of Personal Universes. Entire companies will rise and fall trying to create the perfect fantasy and life may be bound to become the most complex choose-your-own-adventure game ever created.
In the grand scheme of things, however, I believe that the potential of this technology is too great to pass and will likely bring much more prosperity than harm, similarly to all technologies that preceded it. It has the ability to reshape education completely, allowing an entirely new generation to learn not by looking at pictures at a book, but by seeing, living and vividly experiencing all topics they learn about. Other benign uses of MR can push people to be more empathetic, curious and free beings, dragging us away from our rectangular prisons and handing us a world far more beautiful when viewed with a new set of eyes.
Virtual and Mixed Reality bring about new forms of interacting with digital information that will revolutionize not only all the things we learn and do whether in a class room or solving critical engineering problems. It will open the doors to a new, unexplored reality filled with possibilities, where we will have the power to customize our human learning experience, away from the limitations and isolation of traditional computers and screens.
Microsoft first announced HoloLens in January 2015 and shipped to developers and commercial partners in the United States and Canada on March 31, 2016. The company continues to invest in technologies that are enabling the broader ecosystem to create for mixed reality worldwide.
“At Microsoft, we are on a mission to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more,” said Veronica Chiu, Windows and Devices Business Group Lead, Microsoft Singapore. “Mixed reality has the potential to help customers and businesses across the globe and in Singapore do things that, until now, have never been possible. Mixed reality experiences will help businesses and their employees to complete crucial tasks faster, safer, more efficiently, and create new ways to connect to customers and partners.”
In Singapore, the Lab on Wheels program has launched an Immersive Media themed bus in March to bring enriching Immersive Media experiences to schools and the community. The Lab on Wheels Immersive Media themed bus aims to showcase and educate students and the community about how immersive media technologies can impact the way they learn, work, live and play. Microsoft and their education partner, Serl.io, are key partners in this effort to bring mixed reality experiences to students and the public through Microsoft’s HoloLens.