Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Guest blog: Is Microsoft Hololens really a ‘Mixed Reality’ Device?

Over the past 5 years, consumers have had a lot of new terms to grapple with. ‘virtual reality’, ‘spherical video’, ‘cinematic VR’, ‘volumetric video’, ‘augmented reality’, ‘mixed reality’, ‘blended reality’ and I’ve even heard the name ‘transmogrified reality’ floating around. With so much debate among industry professionals over the true meaning of these terms, how on earth can we expect the general public to understand the differences?

Whilst these terms are typically coined in academic papers, technical terms are often bastardised by companies in an effort to carve out their own identity and differentiate themselves from competition. And this is understandable.

Most of us can recall the less-than-complimentary term for people wearing Google Glass. In the adverts for Glass, Google introduced consumers to ‘augmented reality’, a technology which would revolutionise every aspect of our experience. However in reality, Google Glass never lived up to expectations and the term ‘augmented reality’ suffered from stigma as a result.

Two years later, when the Microsoft Hololens announced their head mounted display, they needed a new term to differentiate their new product from Google Glass. They did this in two ways. Firstly, Microsoft revived the popular concept of ‘holograms’ for the type of content it displays.

Note that this bears little relation to the technical definition of holograms, where a three-dimensional image formed by the interference of light beams from a laser. For anybody interested in a deeper dive, VR developer & academic Oliver Kreylos has a great post on his blog about the differences between holograms & what the Hololens creates.

The second way Microsoft distanced themselves from Google Glass was by bringing another term into the public lexicon - ‘mixed reality’. Microsoft use this term to describe an overlay of synthetic content on the real world that is anchored to and interacts with the real world. However, the term ‘Mixed Reality’ was actually coined in 1994 by researcher Paul Milgram in an academic paper, which described MR as part of the ‘virtuality continuum’.

Whilst the concept of the ‘virtuality continuum’ can be hard to grapple with, broadly speaking, the ‘virtuality continuum’ describes AR & VR as being on a sliding scale, rather than as discrete, binary terms. On one side of the continuum, you have good old-fashioned reality. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have full, immersive virtual reality. Along the continuum from reality to VR, there is also ‘augmented reality’ and ‘augmented virtuality’. For a better idea of the differences between the components in the ‘virtuality continuum’, creative technologist Vincent McCurley created this wonderful gif that illustrates the virtuality continuum perfectly:

From looking at Vincent’s gif, anybody who has tried the Hololens would say that actually, Hololens content most closely resembles ‘augmented reality’. However, by describing the Hololens as a mixed reality device, Microsoft seeds the idea that their device is capable of displaying any content along the virtuality continuum.

Dispute only arises when people treat terms like AR, VR or MR as absolute terms. By nature of being a ‘mixed reality’ headset, the Hololens is both an ‘augmented reality’ headset as well an ‘augmented virtuality’ headset. Anybody trying to assert that the Hololens is one or the other, hasn’t understood the definition of what a mixed reality headset is.

Thankfully, whichever term the public adopt will ultimately be driven by the product which most resonates with consumers. Industry ‘gurus’ will argue ad nauseum whether the widely popular ‘Pokemon Go’ is or is not ‘true’ augmented reality. However as far as consumers are concerned, if you can see a Pikachu on your camera feed, it’s AR. This is in stark contrast to Snapchat, one of the most popular mobile augmented reality apps, which doesn’t mention the terms AR or MR anywhere.

It’s clear that over the next decade, we are going to see a dramatic increase in augmented and virtual reality innovations, in both hardware and software. At Scape, we’re working on localisation technology that allows regular mobile devices to recognise exactly where they are for city-scale augmented reality. My hope is that as the AR market matures, innovations will be judged by their merits and not obfuscated by buzz-words and hyperbole.

Edward Miller

Edward will be speaking at Develop VR on Thursday 1st December, 2016.