1. What is Mixed Reality?
Mixed Reality is created when the real world merges with virtual stimulus. It's a subset of extended reality that combines both augmented reality and virtual reality, mixing the physical world and a digital world to create an experience entirely its own. Mixed reality lies at the middle of the spectrum of both VR and AR, where VR encompasses the digital world, and AR sits on top of the physical world. It consists of immersive computer-generated images and objects where elements of a physical and virtual environment are combined and capable of real-time physical interaction.
2. Augmented Reality versus Virtual Reality
It's been established that mixed reality is exactly what it sounds like - a combination of two other subsets of XR. But to really understand it, let's take a deeper dive into what they are, and why they matter.
First, a quick overview of the two. Augmented reality takes digital images, objects, and video, and lays them onto a physical surface. Virtual reality takes a physical object or person and using sensors and digital displays, removes their physical visible surroundings, and puts them into a virtual space.
3. How do they compare?
Both VR and AR use digital images to enhance a physical place, but they are very different in function. While technically VR puts the user into a virtual setting so what they're seeing isn't actually physical, their body is still grounded in the physical and the graphics only change the visual setting around them. Both AR and VR reduce the amount of time necessary to learn a specific job, or lesson. And both can be used in on-the-job safety training scenarios, classroom settings, and gaming alike.
4. How do VR and AR combine to make MR?
While AR allows the user to interact with digital images on a physical plane with a smart device, and VR is nearly the opposite, allowing the user to interact with a virtual world using a headset device, in mixed reality their differences are reconciled. Both of these are great in their own right and are perfect for some applications, but both also have their cons. In AR, the user can only interact with the digital objects using a smart device. VR only allows the user to interact with digital objects on a virtual field. Combining these two technologies opens up an entirely new world of opportunity and possibility because it allows the user to stand in a physical space with a digital image or setting, over a physical space using a headset, eliminating the use of a smart device.
Not only can mixed reality take computer-generated graphics, as in not entirely real, and put them onto a physical space, but this technology also allows the visual transportation of a physical person from one place to another, something not quite possible with only AR or only VR. While virtual reality could place two people together in a virtual space, combining it with augmented reality would allow one to be virtually transported from their own physical space to another physical space through the headset.
5. Applications of Mixed Reality in different settings
So often, mixed reality is conflated with virtual reality and its sibling technology, and the first thing that comes to mind is gaming. Placing the user into a virtual space to surround them with a specific setting, like a shooting arena where a person has a surrounding virtual field to work with. In MR, this arena could be changed from an entirely virtual one to one that is laid on top of their physical surroundings, utilizing staircases, balconies, and walls to hide opponents, with the ability to interact with the physical and graphic space provided.
While gaming has its own uses for MR, it is by no means the only field that benefits from mixed reality. One step away from the previous scenario is military training. Extended reality has a world of benefits of its own, including a shorter learning curve, and the ability to visualize different scenarios, and using XR in the military is a natural conclusion. One application that could and has been used is to visualize battle tactics on top of their actual field of operation to increase their response time and, as a result, their probability of success in a given scenario. It allows teams to understand the best course of action for the most favorable outcome.
Healthcare is also seeing a rise in the practical applications of mixed reality. From education to patient care in hospitals and private practices, major schools and hospitals are using MR to enhance patient care. Microsoft HoloLens 2 has been used in some of the biggest healthcare institutions in the country to reduce training time by 30%, reduce personal protective equipment (PPE) costs by 75%, and improve ward rounds efficiency by 30%. (Source) Beyond this, using mixed reality to explain in a visual and practical way and communicate the nature of a patient's condition can help the patient understand it better.
In the business industry, mixed reality allows companies and employees the benefit of holding meetings and collaborating both physically and virtually with each other across countries and continents. Creating together has become faster and more innovative with each member of a team being present, even if they're hundreds of miles away. What might take days or weeks to complete can now be done in just a few minutes.
Possibly one of the greatest ways mixed reality can be used is to inspire future generations. Mixed reality in the classroom not only reduces the amount of time a student needs to work on any given subject to understand it, but it allows them the opportunity to experience things they might not otherwise be able to. For instance, students can physically interact in virtual frog dissections, or have a 3D examination of the Rosetta Stone and discuss with other students what they've all seen. With how quickly new technology develops, and how eager young minds are to absorb information, they will and are pushing the limits of technological advancements.
While there are plenty of uses for mixed reality in the workforce, one often ignored area that benefits from it is in the home. Designing an entire kitchen or living area has challenges of its own. Standing in Home Depot looking at paint swatches and trying to see it on the walls of a house is hard. Being able to stand in the room and move a sink or refrigerator to another spot or change the color of the back splash with a wave of a hand can help visualize the space better. With issues rising in the world today that require people to stay home, parents have struggled with keeping children entertained and online learning has become the norm. Mixed reality would allow students and families to have a more interactive learning experience where the hands-on experience of physical education has been lacking.
Mixed reality is the merging of virtual reality and augmented reality and uses graphics overlaid on a physical space that a user can see and interact with using a headset. As the technology grows, so do the real-world applications of it. While VR and AR have their limitations and lie on opposite ends of the extended reality spectrum, MR is where they intersect, giving extended reality users the best of both worlds.
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.