The Potential of Realities: Virtual, Augmented and Mixed

Written by Peter Wilkinson on December 11, 2017

Nowadays, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality are becoming household terms in the same way “Smartphone” did 10 years ago, and “www” did 10 years before that. In each decade, adoption of the technology started small but grew exponentially, soon becoming indispensable for business and personal use. Today, where do the next generation technologies stand?

Looking at these 3 realities, VR and AR fill different roles, while MR strives to bridge the two. Together, they represent the key tools needed for the future development of user experiences in much the same way the mouse allowed for desktop experiences, and multi-touch opened up smartphone experiences.

Let’s talk more about the three types, and the role they will start playing in our everyday lives. To use a simple analogy let’s say Mixed Reality is your computer, Augmented Reality is your printer, and Virtual Reality is your internet connection. Augmented Reality transforms spaces in much the same way a printer does. It doesn’t physically change what it’s applied to, but gives it a look that provides a message or expression to all users that see it. Virtual Reality brings you along to other places of content and context, it’s more like the internet in the sense that it’s not related to the space you are in and has connecting qualities to distant users and places. Mixed Reality uses both VR and AR, it’s really the support for the 2 technologies to work together. MR may become the standard interface and platform we use as these technologies become more portable and embedded into our everyday lives.

Let’s take a closer look at what this all means.

Augmented Reality: Transformation

Augmented Reality can be many things to many people, but its transformative effect also allows for shared understanding within a physical space. A simple application of this would be Pokemon Go. In this AR experience Neighborhood Gyms can be seen by all and are placed at specific locations on a real world map; actions taken to attack or defend them are seen in real-time. This is different from the actual catching of Pokemon, where the action is invisible to other players and has no affect on their game. However, the existence of specific types of Pokemon within a shared time and physical space allows for real-world communication in finding them. That’s why we see groups of people wandering around playing the game, as well as individuals. AR creates a layer over our existing space.

Good AR should integrate into the environment seamlessly. Imagine, for instance, looking at the proposed end result of a new construction project in the context of a city landscape, or packaging instructions and way-finding information that is translated and dictated based on the user’s accessibility needs.

Augmented Reality can show us historical, personal, instructional, or even temporary images. For instance, wouldn’t it be convenient to test out furniture in a room before buying it? To try fashionable looks or styles as a personal and convenient way to shop? AR allows for this tangible interaction with ideas.

In the future, AR has a lot of potential to enhance, or potentially even replace, printed media. This includes signage, posters, and all sorts of location-based content. While it has transformative possibilities, however, the user still remains within the same physical space.

AR may also change our tools for self-expression, not just in the environment around us, but in how we see others, and how others see us. It can also be a filter, providing location-based content we feel is important at that time.

All these AR experiences exist now, and will continue to improve in quality and range. Currently the limitations are in cost, convenience and content. Hololens provides much of what AR needs, but is at a premium for cost, while mobile experiences on iOS/Android don’t provide the accuracy and convenient point of view needed for deeper, immersive AR experiences.

Virtual Reality: Transportation

Virtual’s goal is very different. Much like the internet, VR is set to take you to places whether they are possible or impossible to visit in reality: this is why I call it the transportation of the realities.

VR has the ability to turn small physical rooms into infinite virtual spaces. It can be experienced alone, or host thousands of people from around the world, regardless of concrete space limitations. Unlike AR, VR can be viewed from any perspective; a group of people can even share the same perspective within the environment, instead of crowding around it.

Virtual Reality can be a personal world, which the user creates for themselves. It can also be a shared interpersonal perspective, wherein the user is placed directly into the situation of another in order to establish deeper understanding.

Interacting with VR still puts certain limits on the user experience. Typically, you need to have a cleared space around you, because VR obscures your vision of what is actually around. Once transported into the virtual world, the user has to detach themselves from the real one.

Mixed Reality: Bridging

Mixed Reality solves VR’s mobility issue by applying AR’s awareness of objects around you. AR can help the user navigate their actual space while still being immersed in the Virtual world. This allows for a greater sense of confidence in interacting with virtual reality. It also means that objects in the real world could be mixed with virtual ones, even having their own avatars.

In a full implementation, it may become a standard that AR and VR will be used by exactly the same hardware, and be interchangeable with each other depending on the situation: changing the space around you through AR, or going to difference spaces with the power of VR. In fact, one person could be in VR, remotely attending an event, while their avatar could be represented in AR by those who are physically at the event – allowing for real-time communication between both realities. MR therefore works as a bridge between transporting and transforming, and as technology matures, it is MR that I advise you to have your eye on.

What does this mean for you and your association? Stay tuned for the next articles in this series, in which I’ll discuss what is available and accessible now, as well as suggesting ideas for implementing various forms of reality in your future events.