Mixed reality: The best of both worlds?

Having already covered Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), and to mark the imminent launch of Microsoft’s HoloLens in the UK, David Connifey decides to make it a trilogy and takes a look at the new kid on the block, Mixed Reality (MR), which is, as the name suggests, a mix of the two! 

MR aims to take the best aspects of VR and AR and solder them together. It also happens to be the most exciting technology of the three.  Like AR, MR is a merging of the real world with the digital world. However, whereas AR simply overlays virtual content onto the real environment, MR allows physical and virtual objects to co-exist and interact in real time, creating an entirely new environment altogether.

Virtual objects are fixed to a marker or position in actual space, blurring the lines of what’s real and what isn’t (resembling solid, 3D QR codes, AR/MR markers are real life objects your device's 'eye' can recognise, read and translate into complex graphical representations).

On paper, this may seem like a pie in the sky concept – something more at home in Tony Stark’s house. However, in reality (pardon the pun), it’s not as far-fetched as it may appear. This technology exists today, and it’s only a matter of time before it goes mainstream.

As previously mentioned, Microsoft’s HoloLens is due for release in the UK soon. The HoloLens represents Microsoft’s ambitious foray into the MR market. In simple terms, it could be thought of as the MR equivalent of VR’s Oculus Rift. However, it is just one example of wearable MR technology which will bring MR to the masses. Much like Oculus Rift has Google Cardboard, there are more accessible (cheaper) MR alternatives. An example is ZapBox, which is, at the time of writing, closing in on its Kickstarter target of $30,000. This shows there is a genuine appetite for this technology. Whilst it’s still in its relative infancy, its potential is equally abundant as it is staggering.

So, how can MR be utilised in the learning and development world? Well, it takes the benefits of AR one step further. MR allows you to go beyond the traditional screen. So far beyond, in fact, that it renders it completely obsolete. The space around you becomes your screen. Your hands become your controls. Trying to build a 3D object on a 2D screen is a contradiction.

MR is revolutionary and goes beyond what 2D rendering can do, by allowing you to create 3D objects in 3D – a far more efficient way of working. Your creation is right there in front of you. You can walk around it, pick it up and observe it from every angle. Smarter, faster decisions can be made. Then, when ready, you can send it to the 3D printer to make it an actual reality. The possibilities are, almost literally, endless.

MR can take collaboration and communication to the next level. Everyone in the same room can be looking at this single digital object in front of them, without it ever actually being there. They can amend and refine it together more effectively than ever before, rewriting the rules of collaboration as they go. Colleagues can even work together on the same project without ever being in the same room. When working collaboratively, it’s easier to show than to tell. Someone on the other side of the world can overlay digital content onto an object in your view, to physically show you, rather than just tell you, what they want. It's the evolution of screen-sharing into space-sharing.

This ability can also be utilised for remote instruction. Regardless of location, visual instruction cues can appear around the space of the user. An expert on one side of the world could literally show a customer, step-by-step, how to repair a broken pipe right there in their house, for example. This could totally transform the way many people work, and could lead to the rise of a new industry of remote consulting experts. Experts in their field could be working from home, remotely helping customers. This would leave physical office locations and methods of transport obsolete. It would turn every plumber into a plumbing instructor.

Learning and development – insofar as they are responsible for the transmission of new skills and information throughout the workplace and organisation – would be changed fundamentally.

So, is MR the real deal? I am inclined to say that it is. It offers the best of both worlds – quite literally. I’m a huge fan of VR and AR, but MR takes things one step further. I mentioned in my AR blog that people don’t want to live entirely in digital immersion. That they want their digital and offline lives to merge and complement each other. Well, MR offers this in a way that AR can’t, by creating a new world – an almost new state of living.

Of course, only time will tell what will become of MR. You may read this blog in ten years’ time and the HoloLens has been consigned to the technology fails bin, along with Microsoft’s Zune (remember that?). Or, you might be reading this blog as it floats weightlessly before your very eyes.

Although, I’m assuming the novelty has worn off by now…