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Mixed reality: the future of AR devices?

We’ve spoken at length about the difficulties of bringing virtual reality (VR) into mainstream use, but the general discourse around augmented reality (AR) is altogether more upbeat.

And this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Where VR requires expensive and bulky hardware, AR is easily mediated by mainstream smartphones and tablets. Where some VR experiences are can be awkward and glitchy, many rudimentary forms of AR are already in the apps – from games to social media – that form a part of our daily lives.

This narrative has only been accentuated by the ways in which AR has captured the popular imagination in the last few of years. Pokémon Go is a cliched example, but it brought AR global attention in rapid fashion. Likewise, the introduction of image and video ‘filters’ breathed new life into apps like Snapchat and Instagram.

 

Pokemon Go

 

These are just the most well-known examples. AR is also enhancing shopping experiences, improving people’s ability to navigate on mapping apps, and much, much more.

It’s all very exciting, but the general storyline can be misleading—partly because terms such as VR and AR carry an element of ambiguity. It’s why Foundry Trends published a guide describing the differences between the two, and – perhaps most importantly –  outlining how and where they overlap.

This overlap is most apparent when we look to the future of AR devices, beyond smartphones and tablets. It’s becoming increasingly clear that smart-glasses and headsets will mediate the AR experiences of tomorrow.

Magic Leap has finally released its hotly anticipated headset, offering a glimpse into the true potential of AR. Rather than simply overlaying content onto the real world, the computer-generated content responds to its surroundings. If you place a virtual hunk of cheddar in front of a real shelf, for example, it recognises the shelf and sits on it.

This means that in more advanced forms, AR devices can actually incorporate elements we commonly associate with VR. It’s why more futuristic AR headsets, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens glasses, are often confusingly described as ‘mixed reality’ (MR) devices. It’s also why the binary distinction between AR and VR, and their differing levels of potential and promise, fails to portray either accurately.

Looking at the successful application of basic AR in our smartphones, and then contrasting it with the relatively spluttering progress made by VR, can make it seem like the future can only belong to one or the other.  But the most revealing aspect of current innovations is that the future will likely belong to devices that combine elements of both.

In addition, there are some key trends emerging that look likely to shape the direction of AR devices in the years to come.

The field of AI is developing apace, and it’s hard to see how this will not have some impact on AR. In 2017, the ARKit was released by Apple, enabling have-a-go developers to build their own AR applications that can integrate with Siri and  Apple devices. AR hackathons have spawned innovative AR/AI hybrids, including a smart-home integrated HoloLens with gesture control.

 

Gesture Control

 

It’s likely we’ll see this trend continue to grow, with further integration of AI platforms like Siri and Amazon Echo.

As Hololens-style glasses become the dominant  AR and MR user technology, so it follows that the ergonomics of these devices will evolve.  This evolution is likely to trace a path similar to that of cell phones: becoming sleeker, lighter and less bulky over time. The end point will be a pair of MR glasses that are virtually indistinguishable from ordinary prescription glasses in terms of weight and size.

Finally, the AR devices of the future will eclipse those of today in terms of functionality. The range and quality of what you can see and hear using the glasses will take a huge step forwards, with improvements in field of vision and the maybe even the incorporation of motion capture that enables the wearer to command the device to perform tasks based on gestures.

We’re already seeing the beginnings of these developments, which means it’s an exciting time for AR and MR devices - and we’re only at the very start.