Mixed reality is a big buzzword in the XR space. Being a newer technology, it often gets confused with augmented reality, but there is a significant difference between the two. The difference isn't in the benefits of either. Those are actually strikingly similar. The difference lies in the way the technology is used and the types of digital manipulation that can happen, and the implications it could have for the future of the technological world. So, what is the difference between augmented reality and mixed reality?
Augmented Reality versus Mixed Reality - What's the difference, and why does it matter?
Think of XR technology as a spectrum of interaction where augmented reality is one end of the spectrum, and virtual reality is at the other end. Mixed reality lies somewhere in the middle. It's not entirely virtual, but also not entirely based in reality. It's a bit easier to understand the difference between MR and VR because VR's field is entirely virtual. It takes a person out of a real-world scenario and places them entirely into a virtual landscape. There's not much to confuse there.
In this way, MR lies closer to AR on the XR spectrum than VR because both happen in a physical space, using digital objects. Mixed reality is a comparatively newer technology capable of bringing virtual interaction onto a real-world playing field.
Let's take a closer look at each to understand exactly how they work and what makes them different.
Augmented reality is the layering of digital images over a physical space through a medium like a smart phone or tablet. It's necessary to use an intermediary device because while it does involve the real world, its imaging is entirely virtual, augmenting the physical space around a person in a digital way. Programs like Pokémon Go, the Ikea furniture app, Anatomy AR, and Animal Safari use augmented reality to help the user change the space in front of them to capture Pokémon, rearrange furniture, and study wild animals and the human anatomy without physically touching the objects they see.
Mixed reality enables the user to move between the virtual and real-world space interchangeably and manipulate them with little effort. It is a physical extension of the virtual plane that can augment reality and is a step away from augmented reality technology because it allows for physical interaction with a digital creation on a physical space. Imagine that instead of using the Ikea app and camera on your phone to get a general view of where a specific couch might fit in your living room, you could stand in the middle of the room and see the physical dimensions of exactly where the couch would fit best. Imagine picking up that couch and moving it to a different corner without any effort. You could know if it feels too cramped or is just a little too far to the left. In this way, mixed reality gives a more accurate representation of how the virtual world fits into the physical.
Why is this difference important?
In short, the major difference between AR and MR is that AR is simply an enhancement of the physical space via digital images, audio, and video, while MR is the merging of the virtual world and physical world to create something altogether new. They are both enhancements of the physical world, but where augmented reality relies entirely on the physical, mixed reality pulls from the virtual. For this reason, the user can actually interact with mixed reality tech, moving objects around and manipulating the virtual, where with augmented reality, the user cannot actually manipulate the graphics on any other space than the digital.
This difference is important for several reasons.
A) The applications are different and the benefits of each would be better suited to different environments or activities.
B) Mixed reality is more accurate at gauging size than augmented reality.
C) While augmented reality is incredibly valuable and cool, mixed reality has major implications for the future of XR technology.
Mixed Reality's Realistic Applications
XR technology is designed to be an enhancement of the physical world, and so there are a lot of similar ways that MR and AR can be used. It's not in what they're used for, but the way these techs are used. Because MR is a relatively new technology, its potential hasn't been fully realized. However, here are a few ways that this virtual tech has been designed to help in real-world scenarios.
- Education - Mixed Reality, while newer, is no less beneficial to the educational realm. It allows for better spatial recognition, helps the student understand relativity better, and gives them more to work with when dealing with hands-on activities, such as engineering and mechanics, sports, mathematics, etc.
- Entertainment - Extended Reality has been a part of the entertainment industry for decades now. 3D experiences at the movie theater, virtual reality in gaming, CGI in television, and augmented reality in sports commentary are all commonplace and have been for several years now. But there's a new level of interactivity emerging in the entertainment industry that screams mixed reality. Netflix's interactive shows where the viewer can make choices for the characters and decide their fate by those decisions is only a glimmer of what could happen.
- Gaming could take a major turn for the better if the physical landscape around the player became the platform for their entertainment. Certain applications, like interaction with a virtual character in a realistic way, are like something out of a sci-fi novel, but we're living in a world where science fiction is swiftly becoming reality.
- Vocational Training- As with education, this is a field where spatial recognition is incredibly important. Being a medical student going through school with mixed reality as their guide can not only speed up their information retention but could also be more beneficial as they use 3D figures to do their work. Engineers, mechanics, chemists, and military grunts could all benefit from what mixed reality has to offer by way of bringing their digital learning into a physical field.
- Communication and Collaboration- Businesses are the first that come to mind when collaborative efforts are talked about, but they are not the only ones by a long shot. Imagine wearing a pair of MR goggles and being transported to exactly where your meeting takes place, even though you live thousands of miles away. Now imagine the kind of collaboration that could happen if this meeting was entirely in a virtual space and an important decision had to be made about the design of the meeting space or project. The collaborators could easily manipulate objects in the room, changing their shape, perspective, or size to fit the design simply by lifting a finger.
There is a line between the digital world and the real world, but as these technologies come to light, that line becomes thinner and thinner. While there are major similarities between augmented reality and mixed reality, the differences could have big implications for the future of XR technology. If mixed reality became mainstream technology, the world itself and the way that we interact with it and the people around us could change drastically.
About the Author: Anna Taylor
Anna Taylor is a freelance writer and avid researcher- a jack of all trades, but a master of none. She graduated from the University of Hawai'i with an Associates Degree in Liberal Arts because she had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up. She has since found her love of Extended Reality and the possibilities it brings to the world, as well as gardening, cooking, and writing. Anna lives in Interior Alaska with her family.