It used to bother me to hear ‘MIXED REALITY’ called out differently than ‘AUGMENTED REALITY’; both terms were adding something virtual to what you were seeing in the real world, and made me wonder “was augmented’ too “geeky” for everyone so it needed better branding?”
It felt similar how people called out ‘comic books’ as ‘graphic novels’ to make them sound more important.
However more recently, I have come around to see the distinction as being useful, especially as it relates to smartglasses hardware. The mass adoption of smartglasses seem to require it to look indistinguishable to sunglasses of today, so any Augmented-Mixed Reality technology has to work with that form factor.
One of these technologies is ready for mass market consumers today, and the other one has a longer road ahead of it.
The high level distinction between the two mediums, as most define it:
- * AUGMENTED REALITY (AR) is a “Heads-Up-Display” (HUD) of 2D information (text, icons, graphics) over the world around you. AR focuses on information.
- * MIXED REALITY (MR) is 3D virtual objects in positional space around you; for example, you can walk up to a virtual creature and interact with it. MR focuses on application.
AUGMENTED REALITY is useful for messaging, social, phone calls, photos, GPS directions, and information query. New uses might include facial and spatial recognition. In a nutshell, Augmented Reality features are similar to smartwatch-like functionality, except the user never needs to look down to receive this information.
MIXED REALITY is useful for productivity like training, education, and visualization, and entertainment like game playing. Mixed Reality applications will be about seeing and interacting with virtual objects situated in the space around you, as if they were physically there.
Mixed Reality turns the ordinary everyday into something magical. Augmented Reality gives you information while you are doing other things.
On mobile devices, your smartphone already acts as an Augmented Reality device; for example your camera app has buttons and text over live video.
Other specialized mobile devices, like one that have Google’s Tango technology, can do Mixed Reality, where your device knows where you are relative to 3D objects near you.
The Pokemon Go application is somewhat of a hybrid as you can see 3D Pokemon in your world, but you can’t get closer to them and they don’t ‘sit’ in the world correctly.
The distinction between the two mediums becomes much more important when it comes to smartglasses, as the hardware requirements are very different between AR and MR.
Mixed Reality glasses require very special hardware that need to be built into the glasses headset or tethered from a separate device. Roughly it needs:
- * Great battery life to use it all day, just like you would a smartphone.
- * Sensor to detect motion of user, if they are going back and forth, up and down (similar to VR inside out tracking).
- * Fast CPU-GPU to render great 3D image quality with a very fast frame rate.
- * Great field of view, that 3D objects stay in the user’s peripheral vision and don’t cut out.
- * Optional but likely: needs a way to scan the real world to occlude and situate virtual 3D objects (“this character should be behind my couch, not floating in front of it”)
- * Requires good lens quality to see 3D objects without blurs or double vision or too faint of an image.
- * A lens that correctly places in virtual objects in the world so that the user doesn’t experience eye strain and can have a more comfortable and immersive experience.
Eyestrain will occur in MR more than VR because you are looking at both real and virtual objects together, so user is focusing at things both near (a screen millimeters from their face) and far away (8 or more meters). This issue specifically is one that is very difficult to solve. Karl Guttag breaks down many of the issues of current lens/optic systems here.
The Hololens got way better, but you can see just how much tech has to get shrunk down.
The combination of sensors, weight, heat, general bulk and monetary expense makes it extremely difficult to create mass market Mixed Reality smartglasses today.
The requirements of AR glasses are much lower.
AR glasses do not need to perform detailed 3D. The data can have a slower update rate from device as it is just text or flat graphics information and doesn't need to correlate 1x1 @ 90fps to real world space. It won’t need an aggressive built-in processor or tethered to a bulky separate processor if it is just pulling simple data from a smartphone. It doesn’t even need to be full screen or in both lenses and doesn’t need to be bright to match real world.
Very importantly, it doesn’t need special lens to allow for multiple focuses. An AR user can just look at HUD in corner of display when the information is needed, and focus back in real world when it isn’t.
It is similar to when driving a car and glancing at the speedometer, and then looking back to the road- you don’t focus on both at same time, but it is essentially instantaneous. Gamers are used to getting HUD information like this, they just glace at the screen edges and then back to the action.
AR glasses can get us to stop looking down on our phones, and keep us engaged with what we are doing.
With AR, users can see an important text as it comes . You can get walking directions to a new city without looking down and feeling like a tourist. You can see your cab status while scanning the horizon. You can see social media updates as you eat lunch. You can see what is next in your calendar while working with your hands. You can see who is calling without breaking away from a conversation. You can see what Pokemon are nearby while still looking straight ahead.
In contrast, Mixed Reality is focused on applications like entertainment and productivity. These are huge, important uses, but not applications that should hold back the ‘every-moment’ information AR could help with right now.
Mixed Reality is trying to solve advanced problems before we have the basics.
I am a huge fan of Mixed Reality; I’ve started a company focused on it,and believe it really will be amazing and change everything we do. I can’t wait to see where Microsoft and Magic Leap take it next, and will be first in line to purchase their latest hardware…
… But as an everyday consumer, I really want the benefits of AR smartglasses NOW, rather waiting for a perfect Mixed Reality device. I want to be more in the moment in my life, not pausing and looking down at my phone, but still seeing select information I care about and need to know.
This year’s CES show was disappointing that most of the smartglasses are trying to do a wide variety of features poorly, or in poor form-factor, rather than focus on the most basic streamlined usage.
The interesting thing to watch for the upcoming year is will companies like Apple, Google, and Snapchat start to own this market by being simple, vs trying to do it all.