As you will know if you follow our blog, we have published quite a few articles covering augmented reality (AR) and its applications across a range of industries. However, such is the speed of today’s digital advances that AR is already giving way to a more immersive merging of real and digital worlds.
The technology responsible is known as mixed reality (MR), and it is, in basic terms, bridging the gap between augmented and virtual reality.
Because it requires the use of wearable gadgets, mixed reality is not yet as accessible as standard AR. However, headsets are readily available (though expensive), and MR is already beginning to penetrate some industries. Consumer adoption of MR is also on the rise, and in this article, we will share some real-world commercial and recreational mixed reality examples.
First, though, in case you are not familiar with the types of experience that MR can provide, the following summary of mixed reality environments should get you up to speed.
Three Ways of Changing the User Environment
In reality, to define mixed reality as a cross between augmented and virtual reality is to do the technology something of an injustice. It does indeed bridge the gap between AR and VR but is much more than a halfway-house solution.
For example, AR consultants might utilize MR to enhance the augmented reality experience, perhaps by creating interactive holographic apps to overlay onto the physical environment. Meanwhile, virtual reality engineers create MR software that makes greater use of virtual environments, in which the real world becomes a secondary element of the overall experience.
In essence, there are three levels of immersion, or environments, that mixed reality developers can create when building an application. At the augmented-reality end of the experience spectrum, we find enhanced environments which anchor digital content to specific locations in the user’s real world.
1. The Enhanced Environment
If you are using an enhanced-environment app with a device such as Microsoft’s Hololens headset, your real-world surroundings will form the central element of the experience, with useful apps seemingly embedded in those surroundings, such as an MR shopping list overlaid onto the refrigerator door, or an MR television screen on your bedroom wall.
What separates the enhanced environment from an augmented reality app is the far greater degree to which you can manipulate and interact with the superimposed digital content.
2. The Blended Environment
Blended environments occupy the middle ground in the MR experience. These environments comprise a view of the user’s physical surroundings, but with some objects or elements transformed digitally. Transformation might constitute a change of coloration or design, or the real-world object might become something else entirely when viewed through mixed reality goggles. However, the general dimensions of the real-world objects would typically remain unchanged.
3. The Immersive Environment
Immersive environments are what you might call the third level of mixed reality and, while still referencing the user’s real-world surroundings, can create a level of immersion bordering on full virtual reality.
In an immersive environment, the view in your headset might bear no obvious resemblance to the physical space and features around you, but may instead place you in a completely unrelated scene. For example, your mixed reality environment might be outdoors, while you are physically sitting on the couch inside your living room.
Of course, mixed reality apps do not have to fall rigidly within any of the three levels described. Developers can create MR experiences that are found anywhere along the spectrum from augmented to virtual reality. This high degree of creative flexibility may be one of the factors contributing to the strong growth in the mixed reality market, which along with AR is set to become bigger than pure virtual reality within the next few years, as the chart above clearly illustrates.
To understand the extent to which mixed reality can be adapted to suit specific purposes, let’s look now at some real-world applications for enhanced, blended, and immersive environment MR technologies.
Mixed Reality Examples of Enhanced Environments
Because enhanced environment systems integrate digital images with the real world, they are already disrupting certain commercial and industrial sectors according to proponents.
Indeed, this is evident in some branches of manufacturing and medicine, as illustrated by the following examples.
MR on the Factory Floor
Although predominantly operating in the defense sector, BAE Systems also builds complex batteries used to provide power for electric buses. The British company recently began using a mixed reality system to improve training quality and productivity in the primarily manual battery-building process.
With the aid of Microsoft Hololens self-contained MR glasses, factory workers at BAE can project 3D image-based systematic work instructions onto the workspace in front of them, and follow the digital guidance to construct power cells from scratch. BAE claims that the MR solution has cut the time needed to build batteries by as much as 40%, as reported in an article by Computerworld UK.
Mixed Reality for Medical Education
When it comes to studying anatomy, which medical students do as a matter of course, there is no substitute for the human cadaver. However, as a complement to working on embalmed bodies, there is currently no substitute for mixed reality, as faculty members and students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland discovered back in 2015. The University has not looked back since it began collaborating with Microsoft to develop the teaching capabilities of Hololens.
Today, students at Case Western are able to study the human anatomy using a life-sized, standing 3D image, which they can walk around and manipulate, dissect with hand gestures, and examine from unobstructed points of view, which is not always possible with cadavers, as sometimes one organ must be removed in order to view another.
Synchronization of Hololens devices allows an entire class to see the same images at the same time, and remote users can join in from any convenient location. Mark Griswald, a radiology professor at the university, describes the mixed reality anatomy app as “life-changing.”
More Mixed Reality Examples: Blending Environments
The following examples highlight how blended environments are being used in the realms of product design and development to enhance or even supersede traditional methods of concept creation.
Blended Environments for Automobile Design
Just as the medical profession is using technology to complement cadavers, automobile designers are embracing mixed reality as a way to speed up the process of reimagining current vehicle models and developing concepts for new ones.
Ford was one of the first car manufacturers to embrace mixed reality, which its engineers and designers now use in combination with traditional clay prototype designs and existing car models to create new designs more quickly and at less cost.
They use Microsoft Hololens mixed reality headsets and custom software to superimpose new design features onto their clay models and existing cars, which enables them to visualize how each change will look.
The beauty of this approach is that while physical modeling is still necessary, mixed reality eliminates the need to create a new clay prototype each time designers want to explore a change or adjust a design feature. Instead, a single clay prototype becomes the base for an infinite number of design ideas. Other car-makers, including Volvo and Audi, have also begun to utilize MR for vehicle design.
From Headsets to Hardhats: Mixed Reality in Construction Design
While it’s possible, if costly, to create a full-scale clay model of a car, such prototyping is beyond the realms of possibility for construction architects. For them, until recently, the standard technique has been to create scaled-down 3D building information models (BIMs).
Now mixed reality systems give architects, building inspectors, and construction workers the ability to see a virtual version of a structure in its actual location, at the 1:1 scale. With Hololens and BIM mixed reality software, architects can even venture inside their creations to evaluate and assess internal elements of the structure, and highlight issues or visualize changes using voice commands or hand gestures.
Once a construction project moves into the building phase, mixed reality is used to superimpose BIMs onto the actual, physical structure, enabling identification of any discrepancies between design and the building, and precise placement of specialized equipment when required.
Because safety is paramount on construction sites, mixed reality hardware is incorporated into hardhats, protecting architects from injury while they use blended reality to check construction quality and adherence to plans in real time.
Towards Virtual Reality: Immersive Experience Applications
Of course, it would be wrong to publish an article about mixed reality examples without including some purely entertaining uses for the technology. Enhanced and blended environments are ideal for situations in which digital interactive content must integrate with the real world, as in the commercial examples we have covered so far. However, the more immersive levels of mixed reality are perfect for entertainment apps, especially those created for digital gaming.
Even though the price of mixed reality headsets hasn’t yet come down to the extent that would make them widely attractive to consumers, there is already a good range of MR games available to entertain those who can afford the hardware. The following examples have all impressed consumers willing to pay for early entry into the mixed reality gaming arena.
Zombies are seemingly ubiquitous in the world of digital gaming, even making their way into games that aren’t primarily concerned with science fiction or horror. Arizona Sunshine, however, is unashamedly rooted in the post-apocalyptic domain of the undead, as is anyone, according to reviewers, who dares to don a headset and enter the immersive world crafted by the game’s creators.
This game is a first-person shooter set in an expansive game world and offers a thrilling player experience due to a well-architected plot and highly detailed graphics. In fact, Arizona Sunshine was so well received after its launch back in 2016 that it racked up $1.4 million in sales within one month of release, according to tech media site VentureBeat, and by the end of 2017, VR news publication Road to VR estimated total sales to be close to $4.7 million.
A Windows Report review describes Form as being an experience akin to lucid dreaming. Form is a puzzle-solving game that places players inside a virtual representation of the human mind. Designed to run on high-end gaming systems, Form takes place in a virtual environment that’s abstract and continuously morphing as the player journeys through it.
Although most users claim that Form is a little short and that it’s easily possible to complete the game in around one hour, it gained widespread praise for its enthralling storyline and immersive mixed reality experience that’s among the best available right now.
Space Pirate Trainer
Another first-person shooter, Space Pirate Trainer might also be considered as a workout tool, since it has players making full use of the room space available to them. The aerobic exercise comes courtesy of the fast-paced, dynamic style of the gameplay requiring much physical movement.
The premise of the game is simple… waves of alien ships assault the player from every direction, and the objective is to destroy as many as possible using an arsenal of virtual firepower.
Hailed as a winner by critics and players alike, Space Pirate Trainer has sold around 160,000 copies by the end of 2017, as estimated by Road to VR, and received acclaim as one of the year’s best-selling VR titles on Valve’s Steam distribution platform.
Mixed Reality May Soon Be Everywhere
Aside from the mixed reality examples highlighted in this article, enhanced, blended, and immersive environment apps are undergoing experimentation and testing in many other sectors of industry and commerce. For example, the market for mixed reality in education is already growing steadily, with research company Technavio projecting a compound annual growth rate of 90% between now and 2021.
Interest in MR is strengthening in many other sectors too. AR company DAQRI found that out when it sought enterprise input and feedback for its mixed reality headset and productivity software in 2017. More than 100 companies from multiple industries jumped at the chance to test the solution.
It’s indeed beginning to look like mobile AR was just a stepping-stone to something much more important, so now might be a good time to start thinking about mixed reality and its potential uses for your industry—and even more importantly, how you might benefit from using it within your organization.