Your guide to mixed reality technology

Mixed reality -- where augmented reality and virtual reality meet -- is gaining ground in the enterprise. Here's what you need to know.
Written by Macy Bayern, Multiplatform Reporter

Pokémon Go is one of the most popular mobile games ever, with a record-breaking 130 million people worldwide downloading the app on its release in 2016. By 2020, the immersive application is predicted to have 67 million active users in the US, according to a recent Statista report.

This groundbreaking app allows gamers to interact with virtual Pokémon characters in their real surroundings, via smartphone screen. By holding your smartphone up to your surroundings, the app places Pokémon characters into reality. So, if a user guides the virtual Pokémon to the end of a table in front of them, the Pokémon will be able to read the surroundings and either turn or fall off the table. 

SEE: Microsoft HoloLens 2: An insider's guide (TechRepublic download)

This interaction between the interactive world and the physical world, as displayed in the app, is whatTuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst leading immersive technologies at Gartner, describes as an example of mixed reality (MR).  

MR isn't only reserved for games, however, as it's now integrating into many enterprise digital transformation initiatives. Nearly 90% of businesses are exploring, piloting, or deploying mixed reality; and, 69% of businesses believe mixed reality is crucial to achieving their organization's strategic goals, according to Harvard Business Review Analytic Services' Mixed Reality: A New Dimension of Work survey.

Even though the business applications of mixed reality are at an early stage, the technology has the potential to improve employee training programs, change business communication mediums, and revolutionize manufacturing.

To understand mixed reality, you first need to understand VR/AR

What exactly defines mixed reality? To fully understand mixed reality you first have to discriminate between VR and AR.

Virtual reality (VR) completely replaces the user's experience, putting them in a virtual world, explained Ian Hughes, senior analyst of Internet of Things (IoT) at 451 Research. 

Augmented reality (AR), on the other hand, inserts virtual objects and information into the individual's real world, "us[ing] the physical world as a canvas for adding digital content," Hughes said.

"One is transportative, while the other is transformative," Nguyen added. "In the middle, though, is mixed reality. It's mixing a little bit of the physical world with the virtual world." 

Okay, but what is mixed reality? 

Mixed reality is a new-wave technology that combines aspects of both AR and VR. While VR and AR have had decades to develop (dating back to the mid 1800s), the first appearance of mixed reality was only in 1994, meaning mixed reality is really just a millennial. 

The term was first discussed in a paper by Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino, titled "A Taxonomy of Mixed Reality Visual Displays." The paper introduced the idea of a virtual continuum, which was defined as "the mixture of classes of objects presented in any particular display situation, where real environments, are shown at one end of the continuum, and virtual environments, at the opposite extremum."

With the virtual continuum in mind, "a mixed reality environment, therefore, is one in which real world and virtual world objects are presented together within a single display, that is, anywhere between the extrema of the virtuality continuum," according to the paper.

People often mistake mixed reality for VR or AR, but the key is that the two technologies work in tandem to create mixed reality.

Benefits and uses of mixed reality for business 

Since mixed reality is so new, Nguyen explained, there aren't many business applications of the technology. And the business applications that have been deployed are still in the early stages. The best-known use cases for mixed reality involve the manufacturing and medical industries. 

Manufacturing use cases 

Mixed reality can be extremely helpful in architectural scenarios such as placing machinery in a factory, Nguyen said. Users can hold a smartphone or tablet screen up to an area of a factory, for example, and see virtual mockups of the equipment and move it around the space. 

"Imagine me moving a digital object on my screen and saying 'Oh, is this going to fit here? I could put another piece of machinery next to it,'" Nguyen said. "Because the system understands the world, it will say 'that's not going to fit there.' The other object will bump into the wall or another barrier and show me that it doesn't fit."

This technology also helps with worker training and instruction. For example, using a headset, workers can receive interactive instructions on how to operate machinery while on the factory floor, communicate remotely with supervisors, and undergo training programs in preparation for executing business operations. 

"AR and VR offer opportunities to shorten repair cycle times, and offer more training opportunities without a need for physical presence of staff or machinery," Hughes said. This also helps reskill and upskill workers at a faster pace, giving them the resources to problem solve with little downtime. 

Medical use cases

In the medical field, mixed reality is helping students practice surgeries a well as "providing better visualization of operating room data during a procedure to keep the surgeon focused on their task, not looking away at a screen," Hughes added.

Murmurs of other business applications have floated around the enterprise, particularly in improving remote work communication in collaboration. Microsoft, for example, recently announced evolving development of Holoportation, which allows individuals with mixed-reality devices to see and interact remotely with coworkers as a full-size 3D hologram. 

However, these technologies are in very early stages of development and have not been widely implemented or tested. 

How do mixed reality devices work?

Mixed reality is most commonly used through a headset, which users can place on their heads and look through at their surroundings. The headset can then place virtual beings or objects into the user's physical situation. 

"Common features of VR and AR allow users to look around an environment by turning their head, a mixture of hand controllers or gestures provide ways to interact with the digital content," Nguyen noted.

"In AR, content is matched to the physical world so navigation is just walking around the physical space," Nguyen continued. "In VR, room scale does allow moving around for navigation, but typically guardian systems have to track the available clear space. It is not all just about the visuals though; spatial audio is an important part of the experience and haptic feedback as well."

Before hands-free devices, VR and AR involved flat screens via keyboards or systems that required touch, Hughes said. Mixed reality doesn't involve touch; rather, users interact with the digital world and physical world directly. 

Best headsets for business

Mixed reality headsets are in the early stages of development in the enterprise, with more devices currently being patented for future deployment, such as Apple's sensor-equipped, head-mounted display

Here are some of the most popular headsets currently on the market:

Microsoft HoloLens
The latest Microsoft headset, HoloLens 2, features Qualcomm's Snapdragon 850 compute engine and a custom artificial intelligence (AI) holographic coprocessor. Aimed at business customers, and specifically first-line workers, Hololens 2 has a flip-up visor, a large vertical field of view, and articulated hand and eye tracking. It is now available for pre-orders, starting at $3,500.

Magic Leap One
Released in 2018, Magic Leap is a spatial computing system in the form of connected goggles with a Lightpack, or an attached processing unit controlled with a handheld touchpad. Starting at $2,295, the smart glasses are even available with prescription lenses

RealWear HMT-1
The winner of the Best Headworn Device at the 10th annual Augmented World Expo, RealWear HMT-1 is a ruggedized headset designed specifically for enterprise workers in the field. "These devices provide information related to a task, such as data and manuals for hands-free engineering and warehouse type tasks," Hughes said. The device is pretty straightforward, without a lot of bells and whistles, coming in at just under $1,500

Oculus Quest
Facebook's Oculus Quest has been successfully used for enterprise training, as exhibited by Walmart, and is especially beneficial for businesses with its Oculus for Business software. This software suite includes device setup and management tools, enterprise-grade service, and new user experience customized by business use case. Hughes emphasized the non-tethered nature of the headset, and the device is the cheapest on this list, starting at just $399.

The future of mixed reality

"Mixed reality is the latest advancement in the virtual and augmented reality world, and you can expect it to have a lasting impact on the way we do business and solve enterprise problems," said William Griggs, CEO of VirtualRealityRental.co. "We've already seen our real and artificial worlds come together to create popular and revenue-boosting phenomena like social media filters and popular mobile device games -- but this is just the beginning for what's possible with MR."

Sure, MR impacts popular mobile device games, as mentioned earlier with Pokémon Go. But how it will affect enterprises is still up for debate.

According to Nguyen, MR's potential may be limited. "I think mixed reality will have a potentially smaller market then augmented reality," Nguyen said. "Meaning, I don't see as many casts that are essential for the digital to interact with the physical. For example, in my job, it might help for me to have some enhanced information, but my job doesn't involve design or architecture or construction. The value is potentially very high for people in [those markets]."

As mixed reality develops and more devices are released, businesses may adopt this new technology more widely. In the meantime, the gaming community will certainly benefit from it.

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