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Mixed reality: the gateway to the mirrorworld

If you believe the futurists, we will one day spend huge amounts of our time in a vast mirrorworld that is effectively a 1:1 digital map of the entire earth.

This supermassive augmented reality landscape will eventually merge with the physical world around us: an amalgamation of the real and the virtual, that we will interact with, manipulate, and have experiences in, just like the real world today.

That might sound like science fiction, but the seeds of this strange, exciting future are already germinating in the alternate reality technologies we’re developing right now - and specifically in the field of mixed reality (MR).

What is mixed reality?

As the name suggests, mixed reality is the blending of two worlds: the physical and the digital.

The melding of these two worlds creates a distinct, third world: an environment in which both virtual and physical objects co-exist and interact in real-time.

The third, hybrid world is brought into existence through the evolved interaction between human, computer, and environment, which has been made possible due to advances in computer vision, graphical processing power, input systems and display technologies.

Lots of research has been done on the way humans and computers interact. The subject can even be formally studied as a discipline - the aptly titled human computer interaction (HCI).  Humans input information into computer systems in a variety of ways, including using mice, keyboards, touch screens, voice and even through skeleton tracking.

In tandem with this, advances in processing and sensors mean it’s now possible to input information from environments into computers. In essence, this means the computer can understand more about the physical space a user is in.

That allows for capture of data on the person’s position in the world (an ongoing challenge), where boundaries and surfaces are (via spatial mapping and understanding), about lighting, sound, location, and object recognition.

By combining these three things - computer processing, human input, and environmental input - you can create the hybrid world and within that, immersive, mixed-reality experiences.

If something moves in the physical world, that’s translated into movement in the virtual world. Boundaries (like walls) in the physical world are replicated in the digital world.

By processing and understand information about the environment, physical and digital realities can be blended.

blue lights shining through panels

How is mixed reality different from augmented reality?

Augmented reality (AR) overlays digital elements onto a live view of the real world - in most cases using the camera on a smartphone.

As the name suggests, this technology ‘augments’ the real world with digital information and media like 3D models and videos, superimposing them in a real-time camera view of the user’s device.

Pokemon Go and Snapchat filters are well-known examples of AR.

Mixed reality is different, in that it combines elements of both VR and AR to create a third, mixed environment, as explained above. Augmented reality does not do this: you’re very much in the real-world, and in this respect, it’s far less immersive.  

The key difference between AR and MR, however, is the interactivity of the digital media with the real environment. In mixed reality, virtual objects are integrated into and responsive to the real world.

A virtual mouse running around your feet and then under your desk would be blocked from your view, unless you bent down to look at it.

Rather than simply displaying simple images like augmented reality, MR features an immersive, interactive interface that overlays physical reality, putting fully digital objects that are trackable in the user’s environment.

This means you can do things in MR that are impossible in AR, like view and manipulate objects from different angles (which of course also requires significantly more rendering power than you’d need for AR).

The path to the mirrorworld

Mixed reality is one of the most exciting and promising avenues being explored in the field of alternate reality technology today.

There are, however, a huge number of challenges to overcome before it becomes a ubiquitous and inevitable feature of our lives - and a number of different routes we might take to get there.

 

Over the coming months, we’ll take a look at the industries in which MR is currently being used, as well as how the tech is developing, to explore the pitfalls and paths that could eventually lead us to the mysterious mirrorworld.