What Is Mixed Reality, and Can It Take Augmented Reality Mainstream?

The term “mixed reality” has been thrown about a lot as of late, but pinning down a precise definition has proven elusive. After spending the day at Stanford University’s SCIEN-hosted workshop, which was full of augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) luminaries, it appears the one thing everyone can agree on is there isn’t a standard definition for either term. Let’s see if we can do a bit better.

AR now covers a broad spectrum, from Instagram Stickers and Pokemon Go, to sophisticated onsite walkthroughs of rooms of virtual furnishings. Technically, MR covers that, plus virtualized surroundings as context for physical objects–for example, visiting an appliance showroom and seeing an oven nestled in a model of your kitchen.

For now, though, high-end AR companies have adopted MR as a marketing buzzword to describe Head Mounted Displays (HMDs), which present an integrated view of digital content and the real world as seen through the mostly transparent goggles. Loosely speaking, they are using MR to mean incorporating the best bits of both AR and VR in a single device. After a day of talks and demos, it’s clear they’re still short of that goal.

Augmented Reality already has traction for vertical applications

In the marketplace, AR is almost certainly already bigger than VR. It has dozens of uses in industry, some of which we covered at Augmented World Expo. There were well over 100 exhibitors with commercial and industrial applications already in the marketplace, as well as several high-end military products, and even many vendors providing infrastructure support for AR rollouts. We’ll be back at AWE this year and let you know how things have progressed.

Just like VR, though, AR and MR have had a hard time getting traction outside of niche markets, and the staggering but unique success of Pokemon Go. As far as AR-friendly hardware, the best known devices are based on Google’s Project Tango. Google only made it available to developers, but Lenovo has packaged it in a consumer phone–the Phab2 Pro. Unfortunately, it’s bulky and not an especially great phone, so it hasn’t taken the world by storm.

Asus has announced an impressive new model, the Zenphone AR, which supports both Project Tango for AR and Google’s Daydream for VR. It has impressive specs, but no price yet. If it is a great phone, it should be a better test of how popular Tango’s AR features — like building a 3D model of any space you walk through — are with consumers.

Introducing mixed reality

At the extreme, MR builds on AR by adding elements of Virtual Reality (VR), as exemplified by Microsoft’s HoloLens demo of a NASA simulation of walking on the surface of Mars. Microsoft uses the term MR to imply a mash up of the best…

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