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A small band of upstarts are showing new ways of skinning the mixed reality cat.
I’m looking at a virtual ginger cat. It’s suspended in mid air, purring and the fur is so realistic I reach out to... Wait. Stop. Enough. We’ve met this cat thousands of times. This cat is the promise of mixed reality immersion.
The cat is also a demo for the smartglasses made by Beijing-based startup Nreal, founded by ex-Magic Leap software engineer Chi Xu. Designed to sell for less than $1,000, and considerably less when powered by, and connected to, a smartphone, the Nreal Light glasses are one of the hardware alternatives to Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 that was revealed at this year’s MWC. As with virtual reality before it, each mixed reality company is choosing its own trade-off between immersion, design/comfort and price.
Microsoft didn’t include any cats in its own HoloLens 2 demos. It was mostly virtual patients and detailed architecture models, though there was also a virtual piano for LOLs. Instead, the main message was about HoloLens as a tool for business and enterprise.
When the HoloLens 2 costs $3,500 and Lorraine Bardeen, general manager of engineering, mixed reality apps at Microsoft, says “we absolutely expect that HoloLens 2 will be used by enterprise”, it’s no surprise that startups are filling the gap left by high-end headsets – and they are headsets – from Microsoft and, to an extent, Magic Leap.
In use, the HoloLens 2 itself is a major improvement on the original. That’s mostly down to the expanded field of view, now 52 degrees diagonal versus the original's 34 degrees diagonal, so there’s much less of the restrictive letterbox perspective. That said, in the Pearson virtual patient demo that we tried, the experience did at points require us to stand across the room from where the holographic visual was placed in order to get a full view.
We can’t properly comment yet on comfort, based on a 10-minute demo, but that was another big area of improvement that Microsoft was keen to shout out with the weight now more evenly distributed between the fro
Immersive interaction is a noble goal, but when it comes at this price, there’s a potential opening for more affordable, lightweight, consumer-facing devices in the meantime. There are a few alternatives that don’t fit neatly into Microsoft’s strategy. Nreal is focusing, as its founder Chi Xu says, “not on the long-term, ten-year plan, but on what we can offer now”.
The Nreal Light glasses are due in the second half of 2019. They look like dorky sunglasses, feel very light to wear at just 85g and offer a 52-degree field of view diagonal and 1080p resolution. Via a partnership with Qualcomm, the Light glasses will be compatible with smartphones running on the Snapdragon 855 5G Mobile Platform. The Light needs to be tethered to a phone via USB Type-C but otherwise it’s a surprisingly slick experience with a handheld controller and demos including 3D animations and NextVR sports. Nreal doesn't have Microsoft's advanced interaction tech but the visual experience, while not as gloriously high-res, isn't drastically dissimilar. Its main challenge? What is a post-Google Glass device like this actually for?
Xu sees it as a device with “consumer flavour” with video calls, games and entertainment apps all in the mix. We won't know until something like the Nreal Light goes on sale how big the appetite is for face-computers designed for fun, 'consumer' use cases and whether enough has changed since Google Glass flopped.
Take two zeroes off the price of a HoloLens 2 and you get Zappar’s upcoming, budget Cardboard-for-mixed-reality ZapBox 2.0. Microsoft flew out Zappar’s infectious VP of business development and ‘AR influencer’ Keith Curtin to attend the HoloLens 2 launch in Barcelona where he demoed the ZapBox setup. It consists of a cardboard headset and controllers (with triggers that actually work) and a lens accessory to attach to your smartphone camera.
The lower end experience is a little more disorientating than HoloLens or Nreal, but Zappar’s tracking (via cardboard “QR codes on steroids”) works very smoothly – you just need a tabletop to hand. The cheap and cheerful $30 device line has already been used by healthcare companies and in US Congress.
The second takeaway from the HoloLens 2 event was that Microsoft is building an open ecosystem for mixed reality. Alex Kipman, technical fellow and inventor of Microsoft HoloLens and Kinect, stood on stage and declared that the HoloLens ecosystem would be available to all. “We will continue to participate in guiding open standards like [royalty-free standard for VR/AR apps] OpenXR so anyone can innovate with our headset,” he said. “Developers will have the freedom to create their own stores as first class citizens.”
Zappar ZapBox 2.0
From this fairly splashy reintroduction to the technology, it appears that Microsoft is pushing an open system of collaboration around mixed reality, so long as HoloLens 2 remains at the centre.
“Microsoft is going with a PC market-style approach with its Mixed Reality platform,” says George Jijiashvili, senior analyst for AR, VR and gaming at Ovum. “The issue with AR and MR right now is that none of it is affordable, unfortunately.”
Microsoft has always indicated that its traditional hardware manufacturer partners will be able to join its Mixed Reality platform. In fact, they already have in the form of the confusingly named Mixed Reality VR headsets we’ve seen from Lenovo, Asus, Dell, Acer, Samsung and HP, the marketing and selling responsibilities for which have now been handed over by Microsoft to the hardware makers and retailers. The HoloLens 2 has also been built in close collaboration with industry and enterprise customers, right down to Trimble’s custom hard hat HoloLens 2 and, Bardeen says, more to follow in tweaked hardware from inventive Japanese companies.
In the context of HoloLens and Magic Leap, Xu would also like Microsoft to show more of an awareness of how far mixed reality has to go. “We have an SDK that builds on top of Unity so people can easily port their content onto our platform from HoloLens, Magic Leap or even ARKit or ARCore,” he says. “Honestly, we’ve been talking to a lot of independent developers, they’re [Microsoft] not that open. Part of the reason is their big financials, they want to have a lot of control. That’s definitely not healthy for a young market to grow up and we want to make mixed reality bigger first.”
Part of Zappar’s mission is to make creating AR/MR apps and experiences much faster via its ZapWorks Studio software. “ZapBox has the ability to create content quickly, efficiently and in a matter of minutes, not weeks or months,” says Curtin. “Unity and Unreal, all of that software is amazing but it’s not scalable. This is all bitesize. I’m going to continue hammering away at Microsoft because they need to be working with us. If you say you’re going to open up your platform to enterprise and this is an enterprise device, why are you showing a Tweety Bird flying around or a piano? I think it’s probably because they need to be able to make that content quicker.”
This speaks to the big (unanswered) question for mixed reality: will it be a useful tool in industry or the next major disruption in computing? In this case, the closely linked VR industry is only semi-helpful in terms of guidance. In the high end, Oculus tended towards VR game exclusives whereas Vive and SteamVR took a more open approach, with Vive since pivoting to enterprise. Google and Samsung pitched cheaper headsets as bundles with phones or educational tools for schools.
Nreal Light smartglasses
None can be said to have achieved mainstream success in the way that Tim Cook and others predict for augmented/mixed reality. Beyond Apple's ARKit and Cook's repeated bullish comments on the promise of augmented reality, it has been reported that Cupertino will launch some form of AR/MR smartglasses as soon as 2020. Indeed, Apple bought a company that makes AR smartglasses lenses called Akonia Holographics in mid 2018.
Microsoft is talking the talk on an open ecosystem, and there's no evidence it's acting as an obstacle to small-but-innovative mixed reality startups, which, if gadget history teaches us anything, may well end up being acquired by larger players. But Alex Kipman has also outlined (on WIRED US's Gadget Lab podcast) that his quest for more immersion and more comfort from one hero device is a long-term one that will be solved within Microsoft. “As far as I'm aware, Microsoft hasn't indicated that they are planning on growing the list of partner hardware makers beyond the existing major device manufacturers (who already make Microsoft MR/VR headsets),” says Jijiashvili.
There's something of a cautiously optimistic mood around the HoloLens 2's potential, even as Magic Leap has secured partnerships with Weta Workshop, Framestore and Lucasfilm. “Microsoft is in a significantly favorable position in this segment,” continues Jijiashvili, “thanks to its established developer community and a vast number of partners spanning a broad range of industries.”
As for Curtin, the ZapBox might fill a gap but he’s excited about how the technological advancements in the high-end headset are pushing mixed reality forward. “What I see with HoloLens, I’m really excited about the device, with everything that’s going on with optics and eye-tracking, the ability to actually interact with the hologram, what Microsoft is doing with machine learning,” he says. “That’s spatial computing as a future.” Slightly more than an immersive cat, then.