Just when most people have finally become comfortable with how to differentiate augmented reality and virtual reality, all of a sudden a new term has emerged in the media – mixed reality (or MR). If you’re one of those wondering what this new phrase is all about, how it’s distinct from what has come before it, and why we need yet another phrase for this kind of technology, then you’re far from alone.
Mixed reality (which is also referred to by some as hybrid reality) is not the same as virtual reality, but rather a mix of actual reality and VR. In essence, this can mean anything that isn’t a fully enclosed virtual reality system, so it covers both augmented reality, which is where virtual objects are overlaid onto the physical world and also the lesser-known augmented virtuality, which is where real-life objects are merged into a largely virtual environment.
This makes mixed reality an all-encompassing blanket term that can be used to mean any kind of virtual experience that sits in the space between full virtual reality and, well, actual reality (see the diagram below for a visual representation of this).
This all makes sense, up to a point – although it is a fair bit more complex that the AR/VR division that is commonly used to describe virtual experiences. However, as the villain always says at the end of a Scooby Doo episode: ‘I’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky tech companies’.
This is because Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to muddy the waters. When it started referring to its Hololens augmented reality headset as ‘a mixed reality device’ then this at least made sense, as its AR headset genuinely fits the technical definition of MR. However, the Redmond-based company has also announced a number of partner headsets (from HP, Lenovo and Asus, among others) that it claims are also ‘mixed reality’, although the press demonstrations thus far have entirely shown them to be virtual reality devices.
The primary differentiator between the new Microsoft family of headsets and the likes of the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive is that they employ inside-out tracking, with cameras on the front of the headset tracking the controllers, rather than the current industry standard of outside-in, where external sensors placed around the user track both the headset and the controllers.
Realistically, Microsoft has bigger plans for its new headset lines than just plain old vanilla VR; the company has intimated a desire to eventually merge AR and VR into a single hardware platform, but doesn’t seem to be there just yet. If this were to happen, it would bring these devices in line with the terminology they are using but, for now, Windows Mixed Reality is just a confusing misnomer.
Microsoft’s insistence on naming its headsets as mixed reality seems more an attempt to claim the term for its own marketing gain, rather than fundamentally rewrite what the term actually means. Unfortunately, it does add another unnecessary layer of complexity to these technologies that just make it harder for the average user to tell the difference between the ever-growing options out there in both VR and AR.
For now, however, it’s probably worth just sticking to labelling experiences as either augmented reality and virtual reality, and let the manufacturers call their devices what they will.