What Does Mixed Reality Need to do to Catch On?

It may have been called “the most important tech of 2017”, but mixed reality—or, as Google has recently begun terming it, “immersive computing”—is getting some bad press at the moment. The latest product announced by Microsoft, the Windows Mixed Reality motion controllers, received a frosty response at the Build convention, by virtue of being announced with “only vague technical details” available.

The currently-available examples of of MR show the technology in its most basic form, and many apps which are being touted as mixed reality are actually rooted in the more basic form of augmented reality. By trying to get the word out about mixed reality before it is widely available, this misnaming could be argued as people trying to make the medium run before it can walk. Yet there are some extremely useful things that are being done with MR, even if they have yet to be seen by the general public.

Where does MR fit in with other virtual realities?

To explain MR in its most basic form, it’s best to compare it to augmented reality, which is its closest existing counterpart. AR, best known through apps like Pokémon Go, overlays digital images onto real life situations; as Tech Times puts it, “there is no active effort to fool the user’s perception. It is simply there.”

By comparison, mixed reality is meant to be more seamlessly integrated, with an emphasis on digital content, which can be manipulated by the user alongside the real view. “It is designed to be part of the user’s reality instead of pulling the user into a different one,” to again quote Tech Times. British virtual reality production company REWIND are one of the flagship companies working as Hololens developers; they claim that, in mixed reality, “interactive virtual objects can be mapped to the physical environment, seamlessly blending the real and the virtual.“

Technological issues holding MR back

Many critics have accused Microsoft’s MR division of jumping the gun; rather than waiting until they have the technology to show, these teaser announcements are all tell and no show. Some commentators have cited the sense of smoke and mirrors when comparing special effects-laden demo videos with the “tiny” field of view and low bandwidth of prototype Hololens and Meta models.

Despite these complaints, Microsoft have said that a commercially-available Hololens is unlikely to be released until at least 2019; according to Fortune magazine, “the company feels it’s at an advantage compared to competitors and can afford to wait” before releasing upgrades. Microsoft should perhaps have taken a leaf from Magic Leap, whose secrecy about exactly what their product is or does (with occasional celebrity endorsements) has led the company to be valued at $8 billion, placing it above more established startups such as Lyft. Tech commentators Backchannel describe Magic Leap’s launch strategy as “a crazy thing. It’s trying to introduce the future of computing not incrementally, but all at once, out of the box.”

How can MR capture the public imagination beyond gaming?

While almost all new virtual technologies are judged on their abilities in the world of gaming, mixed reality does have the capacity to be more immediately influential in other areas. Warner Brothers have already patented a variety of formats for mixed reality film, creating (theoretically) a more interactive, flexible way to see things on the silver screen and beyond.

The time advantage Microsoft claims to have, meanwhile, could be wrapped up in its development of social applications for MR. For example, their View Mixed Reality system has been pitched as the ultimate visual aid for teachers when it comes out later this year. Others have pointed out the similar applications this technology could have in more practical fields; these include surgery—offering “holographic navigation” to those performing operations—and providing digital showcases for retail.