Unless you've actually been living in an alternate reality for the past couple of years (if so, we envy you), you'll have heard the terms virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality being thrown around, often with little regard for what they each mean.
VR is a bit easier to pin down – total immersion in a virtual world – but AR and MR are often used interchangeably, referring to the same sorts of experiences – Microsoft's HoloLens being a perfect example. Technically, they're quite different, but does it really matter at the end of the day? Well, yes and no.
We'll get onto definitions in a moment, but we think that, for the near future, AR and MR are going to be two different things, before inevitably becoming one big Reality.
Right now, though, you'd be forgiven for not quite grasping the differences. We don't blame you – people are playing fast and loose with the terminology. Microsoft's new Mixed Reality Partner Program suggests it's slowly moving to bring HoloLens and its MR headsets under one term, but there remains an important distinction between the two, as its take on Mixed Reality – headsets like Acer's and other upcoming ones – so far provide a virtual reality experience. HoloLens is definitely in the Mixed Reality camp. Or 'holographic computing' as it also refers to it as.
See? Confusing. And Microsoft's not the only one. So let's start with the basics. What do augmented reality and mixed reality mean in their purest forms?
At its most basic definition, augmented reality is technology that overlays images and information onto the real, physical world, but does not merge the two together. It augments and enhances the world we see, but all the while we are able to easily discern between the virtual and physical elements. The real world is still the central focus of the experience.
For example, with a pair of augmented reality glasses, you might walk down the street and see interesting factoids appear above or on top of landmarks as you pass them. Or maybe a digital character pops up and starts talking to you, but remains on top of the real world without actually interacting with it. It's that point of interaction that separates the two.
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AR's uses might be less exciting than MR, in that it will be more for productive purposes like giving you directions and throwing up information, but its place in our future is undeniable.
Again, if we're looking at its purest definition, mixed reality sits somewhere between AR and VR. It doesn't conjure a full virtual reality, but the digital objects it does present become part of it. The moment the virtual starts interacting with the physical, you're at mixed reality.
The above video is a good example of both AR and MR at play. When we first see the information boxes pop up, they could be considered an overlay, but note how Mount Everest rises up from the desk as if the 3D model was really there on the surface in front of the viewer. Now we're in mixed town. This video, also from Magic Leap, shows a Star Wars demo that's very mixed reality, with C-3PO and R2-D2 aware of, and interacting with, their surrounding environment.
Take a look at the below example of Apple's ARKit in action and note how 3D models are interactive with the environment, and how the viewer can move around them. This demo is definitely in MR territory.
— Made With ARKit (@madewithARKit) June 27, 2017
You may have also heard the term 'merged reality', but don't worry, this is just another way of saying mixed reality. You might also have been told that Pokemon Go is an example of mixed reality in practice, but technically the monsters in the game remain on top of the world (you can't walk around them and see them from different angles) so it's closer to AR.
Does any of this matter?
Well, despite these very boiled-down definitions, companies aren't really following them right now. Take a look at Apple's ARKit, which in demos so far has presented something that's much more mixed reality than augmented.
As mentioned earlier, what Microsoft describes as its 'mixed reality' PC headsets are seemingly just VR. HoloLens is, yes, MR. But does any of it really matter? It depends who you ask, but ultimately, mixed reality is the end game here and AR will just be a part of it, rather than a standalone technology.
"There may be some differentiation today, but given a few years it will all merge to the same definition," said Avegant CTO Edward Tang when we put the question to him, and we largely agree. So, be wary of the different definitions, but also note that where we're going, eventually we won't need definitions.